Waving flags and banners, tens of thousands of Russians demonstrated against terrorism today, massing outside the Kremlin in response to government calls for solidarity after a series of deadly attacks that have killed more than 400 people.
The growing crowd stood still for a moment of silence in memory of victims, starting the rally after a clock in a Kremlin tower above struck 5pm (2pm Irish time).
The demonstration came as relatives held a third day of funerals for victims of the hostage crisis at a school in the southern Russian town of Beslan.
Demonstrators massed under intermittent rain on Red Square’s cobblestones outside St Basil’s Cathedral brandishing banners with slogans such as Russia against terror, We won’t give Russia to terrorists and The enemy will be crushed, victory will be ours.
“I have been crying for so many days and I came here to feel that we are actually together,” said pensioner Vera Danilina, 57.
“We came here to show that we are not indifferent to the series of terrorist acts that have taken place,” said Alexander, an 18-year-old student at a Moscow technical college.
The rally, organised by a pro-government trade union, was heavily advertised on state-controlled television, with prominent actors broadcasting appeals to citizens to turn out to say no to terror.
President Vladimir Putin has called for unity in vast, multi-ethnic Russia and sought to rally its people against enemies he says have aid from abroad
There was, however, criticism of the gathering. The Gazeta.ru website commented that there was “no doubt that its organisers, in the first place, will express solidarity not with the victims of terrorist acts … but with President Vladimir Putin.”
Putin vehemently denied a link between Russia’s policies in Chechnya and last week’s hostage-taking, which claimed more than 350 lives.
He again rejected Western calls for negotiations with Chechen rebel representatives.
“Why don’t you meet Osama bin Laden, invite him to Brussels or to the White House and engage in talks, ask him what he wants and give it to him so he leaves you in peace?” Putin said sarcastically.
“You find it possible to set some limitations in your dealings with these bastards, so why should we talk to people who are child-killers?”
Putin said foreigners should have “no more questions about our policy in Chechnya” after the attackers shot children in the back.
“This is all about Russia’s territorial integrity,” Putin was quoted as saying.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but Margaret Thatcher, whom I’ve met more than once, said: ‘A man who comes out into the street to kill other people must himself be killed',” he said.
He also said his government would conduct an internal investigation but not a public one – warning that a parliamentary probe could turn into “a political show".
Two opposition politicians had called for an investigation, including into the questions of whether the authorities had prior information about planned terrorist attacks, and what the government was doing to stabilise the situation in Chechnya.
Beslan’s streets were crowded with funeral processions today. At the muddy cemetery, where gravediggers have opened up two new tracts over the past three days, relatives opened the tiny coffin of eight-year-old Vasily Reshetnyak, touching his forehead and kissing him goodbye. One of his favourite toys, a red car, was placed alongside the body.
A Russian Orthodox priest chanted prayers as the coffin was lowered into the grave, under a cross made of metal pipes. A picture of the boy, with bright blue eyes, was placed nearby.
In Vladikavkaz, the North Ossetian capital about 18 miles south of Beslan, hundreds of people gathered on central Freedom Square to protest against terrorism and to castigate local authorities for failing to prevent last week’s tragedy.
“Today we will bury our children and tomorrow we will come here and throw these devils out of their seats, from the lowest director up to ministers and the president,” said one of the speakers.
Corrupt authority is a source of terrorism, read a poster held above in the crowd. Along with thin wax candles, which they lit and placed along the square, protesters distributed leaflets calling for North Ossetian President Alexander Dzasokhov to step down.
Militants seized the school in Beslan on September 1, a day after a suicide bombing in Moscow killed 10 people and just over a week after two Russian passenger planes exploded and crashed, killing all 90 people aboard – two attacks authorities suspect were linked to Russia’s war in Chechnya.
A prosecutor said the militants belonged to a group led by radical Chechen rebel Shamil Basayev. A man identified by authorities as a captures hostage-taker said on state TV that he was told Basayev and separatist former Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov were behind the attack.
A London-based rebel spokesman, Akhmad Zakayev, denied that Maskhadov had played any part, and alleged the detainee’s televised statement had been extracted under torture.
“The claims of President Maskhadov’s involvement in the terrorist act are part of a well thought-out disinformation campaign, which also includes officials’ statements about the presence of Arab and African fighters and foreign mercenaries among the terrorists,” he said .
Mikhail Lapotnikov, a senior investigator in the North Caucasus prosecutors’ office, they had established the assailants were “the core of Basayev’s band” and had taken part in a June attack – also blamed on Basayev – targeting police and security officials in neighbouring Ingushetia.
The captured gunman, identified by a lawyer as Nur-Pashi Kulayev, said that he and other members of the group were told the goal of the raid was “to unleash a war on the whole of the Caucasus” – the same thing Putin had said was the attackers’ aim.
The official death toll of the three-day siege-which ended in explosion, fire and a gun battle, stood at 335, plus 30 attackersthe regional health ministry said 326 of the dead had been hostages, and the Emergency Situations Ministry said 156 of the dead were children. Eleven special forces soldiers were killed, and some were being buried in Moscow today.
North Ossetia’s deputy health minister Taimuraz Revazov said 332 people remained in hospital.
At the morgue in Vladikavkaz, 110 bodies remained unidentified, said Natalia Oleinik, head of the forensic department. The bodies, many of them charred, were laid out in black plastic bags behind the building.