Meeting on Friday with mothers of children killed in the Beslan school a year ago, President Vladimir Putin promised a thorough investigation into how the crisis was handled, but told them that Russia was not able to protect its citizens against terrorism.
He noted that the United States, Britain and Spain also had failed to prevent terrorist attacks, and said Russia was in a much more vulnerable position, which he blamed on the consequences of the Soviet collapse.
Members of the Beslan delegation, who have been fiercely critical of the investigation and the Kremlin's reluctance to assign blame for the botched handling of the crisis, expressed satisfaction at finally meeting with the president.
On Sunday, however, they said they had expected him to publicly apologize on Saturday for the deaths of 331 hostages, more than half of them children.
Putin, wearing a black suit, was visibly nervous Friday, shifting in his chair several times as he addressed the eight-person, black-clad delegation from Beslan at a large oval table.
"It's difficult to start this conversation. I won't make a secret of that," he said in televised remarks at the start of the meeting. The location of the meeting was not announced. Kommersant reported that it took place at "one of the government residences" in Moscow.
"The feelings that you are experiencing are understandable for any mother, any father, any normal person," Putin said.
Of the eight people, four were from the Beslan Mothers' Committee. They were joined by three men who had lost relatives in the school and North Ossetian President Teimuraz Mamsurov, two of whose children were among the hostages and were wounded. Dmitry Kozak, Putin's envoy to the Southern Federal District, was also present.
None of the people from Beslan was shown speaking on camera. The broadcast lasted about two minutes and was limited to Putin's opening remarks.
"I must say immediately: I agree with those who believe that the state is not in a condition to provide for the security of its citizens to the extent necessary," Putin said.
He then attempted to deflect the blame by saying no government could fully protect its people from terrorism, pointing to Sept. 11, 2001, and the terrorist acts in Madrid and London.
"Developed, powerful governments with functioning economies and well-performing intelligence services are currently unable to prevent terrorist acts," he said. "To say nothing about our country, which sustained enormous losses during the collapse of the Soviet Union, economically and in the social sphere."
He added that the military and intelligence services had been "knocked out" and were "in a state of partial paralysis" after the Soviet collapse and the first war in Chechnya.
However, this is no justification for anyone failing to carry out their official duties, he said. "All of the circumstances must be thoroughly investigated, and the entire public will be informed [of the results]," he said. "We are striving for this, and we will certainly achieve this."
Putin also responded to criticism of the choice of Friday for the long-sought meeting with the mothers, who had to interrupt their mourning during the Sept. 1-3 anniversary to come to Moscow. Putin said he had wanted to wait for the investigation into the attack to produce sufficient information before meeting with them. Also, the meeting Friday preceded the national Day of Solidarity with the Victims of Terrorist Acts, on Sept. 3, which was declared last year in the aftermath of the attack, he said.
Putin wrapped up his opening remarks saying, "I am ready to answer all your questions." At that point, the broadcast ended.
After the closed-door meeting, which lasted for about three hours, the relatives said it became clear to them that the information that had been given to Putin contradicted first-hand accounts.
"We became convinced that there was misinformation on many issues," Susanna Dudiyeva, chairwoman of the Beslan Mothers' Committee, told reporters after the meeting.
She and others, however, expressed satisfaction at the chance to speak out. "I think we said everything that we wanted to say," Dudiyeva said. "We spoke about responsibility, the fate of children that survived; we spoke about the dead, those who didn't live to grow old; we spoke about irresponsibility and negligence."
Dudiyeva said the president promised they would see the results of their conversation in the near future.
Mamsurov said the meeting was frank. "The level of openness astonished me," he said. Mamsurov said he was certain that investigators would now give more weight to what the victims had to say, which would be reflected in the investigation's conclusions.
Viktor Yesiyev, one of the three men at the meeting, said Putin had answered all their questions. "We think that the president will pay attention to the issues that were raised, and the shortcomings of the investigation will be removed," said Yesiyev, 66, who lost a son last year.
The other two men were Mairbek Tuayev and Azamat Sabanov. Tuayev, who lost a daughter, is chairman of a Beslan commission overseeing the distribution of federal financial and humanitarian assistance. Sabanov, who is a member of Tuayev's commission, lost his father, the former director of School No. 1, who had come to attend the opening of the new school year.
In addition to Dudiyeva, the Beslan Mothers' Committee was represented by Aneta Gadiyeva, Rita Sidakova and Rimma Torchinova.
Speaking to reporters following Friday's meeting, Kozak said Dudiyeva concluded the meeting by telling Putin, "We are with you, Vladimir Vladimirovich."
Members of the Beslan delegation later said Kozak had taken Dudiyeva's comment out of context.
Ekho Moskvy radio on Sunday cited members of the delegation as saying that they had assured the president that the Russian people would be with him if he apologized. They said Putin told them that he would "find the right words" and that they had expected to hear his apology on Saturday.
Speaking to reporters late Friday after returning to Beslan, Dudiyeva said the committee gave Putin all the documents and evidence they had concerning the school seizure, and that Putin admitted his share of responsibility.
"He feels guilty. ... He answered all our questions, and he promised us action to find out the truth," Dudiyeva said. "He is interested in getting the truth."
At a Security Council meeting Saturday, Putin announced that a group of investigators would be sent to Beslan from the Prosecutor General's Office to revitalize the investigation, according to a statement on the Kremlin web site.
This investigation is being handled by the office's branch in the Southern Federal District, headed by Nikolai Shepel. Former hostages have accused Shepel -- who is leading the prosecution in the ongoing trial of Nurpashi Kulayev, who is said to be the only surviving terrorist -- of ignoring their testimony and trying to limit the investigation to Kulayev's trial.
Putin said the findings of the new investigative team would be used to reform the police and security services. "An objective and comprehensive investigation of these cases will help to drastically improve, perfect the entire law enforcement sphere," he told the Security Council.
A commission investigating the attack for the North Ossetian government planned to complete its report in the last 10 days of September, Interfax reported Friday. The head of the commission, Stanislav Kesayev, said the special services would be found at fault. A separate investigation by a federal parliamentary commission might continue into 2006, Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov said Friday, Interfax reported.
(The Moscow Times 05.ix.05)