Fears of revenge as Beslan ends 40 days of mourning

RESIDENTS of the grief-stricken Russian school siege town of Beslan marked the end of the 40-day mourning period for the hundreds of victims of the massacre yesterday.

They lit candles and propped up photographs among the flowers piled in the shattered gymnasium at the centre of the tragedy.

“My friends’ children died. My relatives’ children died. We are all dying from this,” said David Alexeyev in the North Ossetian town.

“Time will pass but that won’t heal our wounds. One hundred years, 500 years - it won’t help.”

The school corridors rang with women’s sobs, while in the streets, families set up tables and bonfires for mourning meals. Mourning families could be identified by their men, wearing long beards they planned to shave at the end of the 40 days.

Across Russia, priests read Mass in Orthodox churches, while regional politicians urged calm amid rumours the end of the mourning period would bring a wave of revenge killings.

Some North Ossetians have vowed to seek revenge on the rival Ingush ethnic group to avenge the deaths of the nearly 340 people - more than half of them children - in last month’s attack on Beslan’s School No 1. The hostage-takers included some Ingush.

“The seizure of the school in Beslan was the latest attempt to destabilise the situation in the North Caucasus,” Ingush President Murat Zyazikov said.

But he insisted that fears of an outbreak of fighting were overblown.

“The people of the North Caucasus have become wiser and, moreover, they are tired of war,” he said.

The Ingush, closely related to the Chechens, are predominantly Muslim. Ossetians are Christian and historically have had close ties with Russians.

The Ingush and Ossetians fought a 10-day war in 1992 over rights to land as Ingush tried to return to their homes half a century after being sent into exile with the Chechens under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

Thousands of Ingush live in refugee camps on the border between North Ossetia and Ingushetia. Those in North Ossetia are subject to harassment, discrimination and, after Beslan, death threats. Many Ingush claim title to land and homes occupied by Ossetians.

Russian authorities have dispatched hundreds of extra police and troops to the region, worried that long-simmering ethnic tensions could set off a wave of violence.

The volatile relationship between North Ossetians and the Ingush is just one of many rifts between ethnic groups in the Caucasus Mountains region that have made southern Russia a seedbed for violence for so many years.

Several of the militants who seized School No. 1 in Beslan were believed to be Ingush fighters loyal to Chechen separatist warlord Shamil Basayev, an Islamic extremist who has claimed responsibility for engineering the hostage-taking.

More than 330 hostages, 172 of them children, died when explosions inside the school triggered a 10-hour battle between the militants and Russian troops. The Kremlin believes Basayev’s goal was to use the school siege to kindle ethnic strife throughout the region.

“Let’s assume that some hotheads decide to settle scores with Ingush citizens,” said Ruslan Aushev, former president of Ingushetia, and a negotiator for Russian authorities during the siege.

“This will blow up the situation in Ossetia, Ingushetia and all other neighbouring republics. The situation there is balancing between war and peace as it is.”

Russian authorities believe violence would likely surface in North Ossetia’s Prigorodny region, once a part of Ingushetia but folded into North Ossetia in the 1950s after Stalin’s mass deportation of Ingush and Chechens during World War II. Thousands of Ingush still live there. Ossetians have refrained from retaliation during the traditional Russian Orthodox 40-day period of grieving, but that period has ended.

“Don’t blame us at all if we rise up,” said Alan Kursrayev, a 26-year-old Ossetian from Beslan.

“The Ingush were among the terrorists at the school, and as far as I’m concerned, all Ingush are terrorists.”

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