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Russia Admits It Lied On Crisis

Public Was Misled On Scale of Siege

By Susan B. Glasser and Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 6, 2004; Page A01

MOSCOW, Sept. 5 -- The Russian government admitted Sunday that it lied to its people about the scale of the hostage crisis that ended with more than 300 children, parents and teachers dead in southern Russia, making an extraordinary admission through state television after days of intense criticism from citizens.

As the bereaved families of Beslan began to lay their loved ones to rest Sunday, the Kremlin-controlled Rossiya network aired gripping, gruesome footage it had withheld from the public for days and said government officials had deliberately deceived the world about the number of hostages inside School No. 1.

In Moscow, Russian Orthodox faithful place candles for the victims of the Beslan school seizure as mourning echoed across the country. (Mikhail Metzel -- AP)

_____Hostage Standoff Ends_____
Photo Gallery: The hostage standoff at a school near Chechnya turned tragic with hundreds of children and adults killed or injured during fighting.
_____More From The Post_____
A Gruesome Tour Inside School No. 1 (The Washington Post, Sep 6, 2004)

"At such moments," anchor Sergei Brilyov declared, "society needs the truth."

The admission of an effort to minimize the magnitude of a hostage crisis that ensnared about 1,200 people, most of them children, marked a sharp turnabout for the government of President Vladimir Putin. In previous crises with mass fatalities, such as the sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk in 2000 and the 2002 siege of a Moscow theater, officials covered up key facts as well, but afterward never acknowledged doing so.

"It doesn't suit our president," a Kremlin political consultant, Gleb Pavlovsky, said on the broadcast. "Lies, which really acted in the terrorists' favor, did not suit him at all. Lies were weakening us and making the terrorists more violent."

The broadcast included no apology and referred only to the most blatant misstatement by officials, the claim that only 354 hostages were inside the school. It did not acknowledge that the hostage-takers had demanded an end to the war in Chechnya or that the government continues to give conflicting information about whether any of the guerrillas remain at large, who they were and how many were killed.

Nor did it mention that many residents of Beslan have been outraged that the government now appears to be understating the death toll, which stood officially at 338 Sunday night, although nearly 200 people are still unaccounted for.

As for the hostage-takers, Deputy Prosecutor General Sergei Fridinsky said authoritatively on Saturday there were 26 of them, and all had been killed. On Sunday, he said there were 32 -- 30 of them dead -- and bragged about the capture of one "member of the gang" who was to be charged in court on Monday.

Putin made no public comment Sunday on the deadliest terrorist attack of his presidency, and no senior member of his government has commented publicly since the siege began at 9 a.m. Wednesday. A day after the president vowed in a televised address to take unspecified new security measures in response to the killing of "defenseless children," the Kremlin was silent on what those steps would be.

Sergei Markov, a political analyst with close ties to the Kremlin, said the deadly outcome of the school standoff had left Putin at a loss as to how to respond beyond the former KGB colonel's instinct to strengthen police powers and centralize control over government institutions. "They don't know what to do," he said. "Vladimir Putin didn't explain in detail what will be happening."

Speaking before the Sunday night broadcast of the state television news program "Vesti," Markov said it had been clear that the government had engaged in a clumsy coverup. "Everybody understands they are lying," he said. "Everybody can do the math and know there were more than 1,000 people inside the school."

The Kremlin sought to distance Putin from the deceptions through Sunday's broadcast, in which the anchor chided "generals and the military and civilians" for failing to act "until the president gives them ideas of what to do." Pavlovsky, the political consultant, said Putin had given Russia's political system "a no-confidence vote" for its handling of the crisis.

Such statements could never be aired unless the Kremlin directly ordered them, according to political analysts here. Criticism of the president is never broadcast on state television, the continuing war in Chechnya is almost never mentioned, and even mild questioning of government policy is not allowed without approval from the Kremlin.

"Nothing happens on Rossiya television without the permission of the Kremlin," commentator Andrei Piontkovsky said.

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