"Why should we talk to people who are child killers?"

President Putin defends Russia's policy toward Chechnya as the people of Beslan bury their dead.

Published September 7, 2004 1:58PM (EDT)

Russian President Vladimir Putin Monday night refused to order a public inquiry into how the Beslan school was captured by gunmen and resulted in such a high death toll.

He told the Guardian that people who call for talks with Chechen leaders have no conscience. "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? Why don't you do that?" he said with searing sarcasm. "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? "No one has a moral right to tell us to talk to child killers," he added.

"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 told the Guardian.

At times grim-faced, but always calm, Putin made his comments in the midst of an extraordinary three-and-a-half-hour meeting with a group of foreign journalists and academics with long experience in Russia, invited for a special conference. Held in Putin's country house outside Moscow, the question-and-answer session ended after midnight. It was his first meeting with foreigners since the Beslan catastrophe.

He said he would hold an internal inquiry into the Beslan tragedy, but not a public one. "I want to establish the chronicle of events and find out who is responsible and might be punished," he said. If the Russian parliament wanted to set up its own inquiry, he would not object, but he warned that it could become "a political show." "If that happened, it would not be very productive," he said.

The long discussion covered a wide range of topics but returned to the issue of Chechnya more than once. Russian officials believe Shamil Basayev, the most extreme Chechen commander, was responsible for the hostage taking, which ended with at least 335 dead, hundreds injured and scores missing. Witnesses have reported that the hostage takers had attempted to justify their brutality by claiming it was an act of revenge for the killing by Russian forces of Chechen children.

Putin's words yesterday followed the unending stream of funerals as the people of Beslan buried their children, relatives and friends, while others sought information on those still missing. The president admitted Russian forces had committed human rights violations in Chechnya but, like the torture by U.S. soldiers in the prison of Abu Ghraib in Iraq, these were not sanctioned from the top, he said. "In war there are ugly processes which have their own logic."

Striking the table with the side of his right hand, Putin said there was no connection between Russian policies in Chechnya and the events in Beslan. "Just imagine that people who shoot children in the back came to power anywhere on our planet. Just ask yourself that, and you will have no more questions about our policy in Chechnya," he said.

The president made it clear he sees the drive for Chechen independence as the spearhead of a strategy by Chechen Islamists, helped by foreign fundamentalists, to undermine the whole of southern Russia and even stir up trouble among Muslim communities in other parts of the country. "There are Muslims along the Volga, in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. Chechnya isn't Iraq. It's not far away. It's a vital part of our territory. This is all about Russia's territorial integrity," he said.

Russia is interested in a political solution in Chechnya, he insisted. Elections for a Chechen parliament will be held shortly, "and we will try to attract as many people as possible with different views to take part," Putin said. "We will strengthen law enforcement by staffing the police with Chechens, and gradually withdraw our troops to barracks, and leave as small a contingent as we feel necessary, just like the U.S. does in California and Texas," he said.

He did not agree that a war was still going on in Chechyna five years after he first sent in troops. "It is a smoldering conflict. There have been attacks, but not like the big operations of 1999," he said.

By Jonathan Steele

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