The Talks That Failed

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As Russia reels from the hostage crisis at School No. 1 in Beslan, in the republic of North Ossetia, the repercussions continue. Russian President Vladimir Putin has furiously blamed Islamic terrorists for the tragedy, defended his policies on Chechnya and, under pressure, called for a parliamentary investigation of the incident. But could quicker action to negotiate with the terrorists have averted the carnage that left at least 338 dead?

Shortly after seizing the school, the terrorists, who were demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya, sent word that they wanted to negotiate with a group that included North Ossetia's President Alexander Dzasokhov. But Dzasokhov says when he tried to go to the school, he was stopped by the military, probably out of concern that he might be taken hostage. Dzasokhov told TIME: "A very high-ranking general from the Interior Ministry said, 'I have received orders to arrest you if you try to go.'" Meanwhile, Putin — who has long refused to negotiate with Chechen separatists — apparently sanctioned an effort to enlist an intermediary to help resolve the crisis: Aslan Maskhadov, the deposed successionist President of Chechnya. Dzasokhov told TIME that he talked to Maskhadov's London-based representative Akhmed Zakayev, and asked them to intervene. Zakayev, who says Maskhadov was "horrified at this atrocity," pledged cooperation and asked for guarantees of Maskhadov's safety when he came to Beslan. When they next talked, a day later, Dzasokhov said he needed two more hours to work out the details. It was too late: 40 minutes later, a bomb went off in the school and the slaughter began.

Involving Maskhadov was an unprecedented move. Dzasokhov also said the Russians made an offer to the terrorists — including a safe corridor for them to escape — but no answer came from inside the school. "As long as I live," says Dzasokhov, "I will be playing this over in my mind."