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Russia mourns hostage deaths, Putin criticised

: Reuters

: Reuters  : Reuters

Grief-stricken mothers and fathers trudged through mud and rain on Monday to bury children slaughtered in a Russian school siege as criticism mounted over the way the Kremlin handled the crisis.

At least 335 people, half of them children, were killed during a bloodbath that ended last week's 53-hour siege of the school by Chechen separatists. In Beslan, not far from Muslim Chechnya but religiously and ethnically distinct, authorities took over land the size of a soccer pitch next to the cemetery to find room to bury the dead.

Troops have tightened security at North Ossetia's borders over fears that fury over the carnage would stoke tensions in the Caucasus region of southern Russia. But anger has also been directed at President Vladimir Putin and his security services.

"The official claim that international terrorism is behind the Beslan tragedy is a trick designed to divert responsibility away from the Kremlin," liberal politician Boris Nemtsov told Reuters.

Putin came to power four years ago promising to stamp out separatism and build a strong state. In the last weeks, two airliners blew up in mid-air and a suicide bomber killed nine pedestrians near a Moscow metro station.

"We are absolutely defenceless in the air, in the metro, in our own capital and outside it," Vladimir Ryzhkov, independent member of the lower house Duma, wrote in Nezavisimaya daily. "He won the contract (as president) to restore order in the country, to ensure security for people. We see today that the contract has been violated."

Putin declared two days of national mourning on Monday and Tuesday over the deaths in the siege, which ended in a fierce battle on Friday between the rebels and Russian troops.

The gutted school gymnasium, where the rebels held more than 1,000 children, parents and teachers attending the first day of term, has turned into an unofficial shrine. Deprived of water by their abductors, children stripped to their underwear and drank their own urine in the stifling gym.

Flowers, bottles of water, and pictures of missing children have been placed among the rubble. Atsamas Beguyev, 11, showed this reporter holes in the wooden floor where the rebels had stashed ammunition and explosives that they suspended between basketball hoops.

Bottles of water were also placed at the graves on the outskirts of Beslan, a town so small nearly everyone has a relative to grieve for. Among the 80 or so to be buried on Monday were mother Zinaida Tomayeva, and her 10-year-old daughter Zinaida who shared a grave. Family members wailed in grief. Paramedics helped several who fainted.

"I feel terrible. I had a sister here who died. My other sister is in hospital. What can I feel? Do you hear people crying? That's how I feel," said Beslan resident Rustan.

Across Russia, flags flew at half mast and television stations cancelled entertainment programmes the second period of national mourning in as many weeks following the death of 90 people in the twin plane crashes.

Condolences have come in from around the world. In Italy, thousands of people put candles in their windows on Saturday night in memory of the dead after a university teacher suggested the idea by text message to her friends, which was forwarded hundreds of thousands of times.

As the people of Beslan buried their dead, 207 other bodies have yet to be identified. Some reports say there are more than 200 missing though officials say the number refers to those unidentified and does not suggest there will be a big increase in the death toll.

06 16:38


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