President Vladimir Putin angrily condemned critics in the West for pushing him to negotiate with Chechen separatists, saying former Cold War rivals were unreliable partners in the war on terrorism and failed to understand that the carnage at a Russian school last week was the work of "child killers" just as bad as Osama bin Laden.
"Why don't you meet Osama bin Laden, invite him to Brussels or to the White House, engage in talks, ask him what he wants and give it to him so he leaves you in peace?" Putin said to a group of Western academics and journalists late Monday night. "You find it possible to set some limits in your dealings with these bastards, so why should we talk to people who are child killers?"
At a time when his government has come under intense criticism in Russia for its failure to prevent the blood bath in the town of Beslan, Putin rejected commissioning an independent inquiry akin to the Sept. 11 commission in the United States and castigated Western journalists for calling the hostage takers rebels rather than terrorists.
He also said surveillance tapes from inside the school had picked up a conversation in which one hostage taker bragged over his walkie-talkie about executing children during the siege. "One asks, 'What's happening? I hear noise,' and the other says, 'It's okay, I'm in the middle of shooting some kids. There's nothing to do.' They were bored, so they shot kids," Putin said, according to detailed notes taken by former CNN Moscow bureau chief Eileen O'Connor. "What kind of freedom fighters are these?"
Opposition figures said that the president was trying to deflect criticism. "Putin is doing this because his policy in Chechnya looks bankrupt now. He wants to show a reason outside the Kremlin," said Boris Nemtsov, whose Western-oriented Union of Right Forces party was knocked out of parliament in elections last year. "The only way for the Russian public to explain something so terrible is to say we have a lot of enemies out of the country. This is very Soviet-style rhetoric."
The president's defiant comments came as Russia mourned the more than 300 dead students, teachers and parents of Beslan's School No. 1 with massive outpourings of public grief. Here in Moscow, police estimated as many as 130,000 people turned out in the shadow of the Kremlin for a government-sponsored demonstration that organizers called a protest "against terror." Tens of thousands showed up in other cities as well, while in Beslan funerals for people among the 335 officially declared dead continued for a third day.
On Tuesday, the government released clips from video footage shot by the guerrillas inside the school during the siege. Played on NTV television, the footage showed crowds of hostages sitting terrified on the floor of the school's gymnasium, with bombs strung overhead. Moving among them were heavily armed men in black and camouflage and women wearing explosive belts.
Putin has blamed the siege on international Islamic terrorists -- his government claims 10 out of 35 attackers were Arabs -- and he used his unusual, nearly four-hour session with the Westerners Monday night to complain about what he described as a double standard being applied to Russia. "If these people come to power in Chechnya," he warned, "they'll come to power in your country."
He stopped short of directly accusing the United States or its allies of sponsoring terrorism here and praised President Bush as a "predictable and reliable partner." But he argued that other Western officials hoped to undermine Russia and were willing to use whatever tools available to do so.
The United States officially maintains that Russia should find a political solution to end the Chechen war, but does not push hard for that goal. European governments have been more vocal in promoting talks as the only way to end the war.
"It's a replay of the mentality of the Cold War," Putin said of Western critics. "Certain people want Russia focused on its internal problems. They pull the strings so that Russia won't raise its head." At that, O'Connor said, he gestured with his hands to indicate strings being pulled. "I've seen it with my own eyes. We're seeing partners in the anti-terror coalition having a difficult dilemma. They might want to pull the strings without transgressing the point at which it goes against their own interests."
Opposition politicians argued that Putin himself was reviving Cold War rhetoric in an effort to deflect attention from his failure to control the situation in Chechnya, where a decade of on-again, off-again war has brought about a wave of Chechen-related terrorism across Russia that has killed more than 1,000 people in the past two years.
The president's attack on Western critics was quickly appropriated Tuesday by members of the pro-presidential majority in parliament. They had previously remained silent about Beslan and what should be done about it.
"The mentality of the Cold War is still alive," said Vladimir Vasiliev, chairman of the security committee in parliament. "When the cruelest bandits who committed this awful crime are called fighters for liberty by newspapers in the West, this feeds the mentality of the Cold War. Terrorists were sent here and certain tasks were set for them here," he said in an interview, refusing to specify who he believed sponsored them. "The idea was to make Russia weaker."
The Russian government's tougher approach after the tragedy was also apparent in a statement Tuesday from the Foreign Ministry, in which it demanded the extradition of Akhmed Zakayev and other Chechen separatist leaders who have been granted political asylum in Western Europe. During the siege, two Russian government envoys reached out to Zakayev, inviting him to join talks to end the standoff in the first overture to him in three years.
But the statement Tuesday called him a "terrorist" whose "evil deeds" must not go unpunished and demanded that authorities in Britain, where he has been allowed to live, hand him over and acknowledge "the degree of their misjudgment."
Participants in the marathon session at Putin's country residence in Novo-Ogaryovo outside Moscow agreed that the president -- at times angry, at times calm -- had a tough message to send on Chechnya and the Caucasus region of which it is a part. Still, he gave little indication of what he planned to do other than take unspecified tough measures.
Cliff Kupchan, vice president of the Washington-based Nixon Center, a foreign policy research group, and a participant in the talks, said, "This was a guy who was really shaken, who took three and a half hours to talk to us, who was taking criticism and who was seriously thinking through issues." At Tuesday's demonstration held outside the Kremlin, many in the crowd of thousands of flag-waving Muscovites said they had come not to support the president but to show solidarity with the victims in southern Russia.
"No person can be indifferent now. It has nothing to do with politics," said Galina Drozhova, wielding a banner that read "Murderers Should Answer." The 54-year-old mother of two said that "execution" was the only proper punishment. "Any mother would just destroy these guys with her naked hands."
Vladimir Solovyov, a popular radio host who initially proposed holding the demonstration, said in an interview that he and his listeners decided during the school siege that "something has to be changed. We have to take care of things ourselves. It's obvious our government doesn't have a clue what to do."
After the bloody end to the standoff Friday, he said he received a phone call from the Kremlin embracing the demonstration. He said he was unhappy about it being taken over by officials, but decided that "politics is over" in Russia after an event so horrible. "Who cares about political quarrels when they are killing our kids? Since Nazi Germany, no one ever shot kids in the back."
The officially orchestrated nature of Tuesday's event was in evidence, from the ranks of city government employees to the preprinted signs saying "Putin We Are With You" carried by teenagers who said they had been handed them when they arrived. All Russia's major political parties sent delegations, but two Western-oriented democratic parties boycotted, citing the manufactured nature of the event.