Monday, September 06, 2004

Russia Admits It Lied On Crisis

What can I say other than "Told you so"? The Russian authoritities seem congenitally incapable of telling the truth.

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.

"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.
Given this much dishonesty thus far, I'd say that the odds that the hostage-takers actually set off the bloodletting has just declined to 10% at best. I expect to see even more embarrassing revelations emerge in the coming days.