Putin: We Displayed Weakness, and the Weak Are Always Beaten

Death toll among hostages in seizure of Beslan school climbs to 330; Sharon, Katsav send condolence letters to Russian president.

BESLAN, Russia - Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday demanded a drastic shakeup of security forces' tactics against terror after the seizure of a school by Chechen militants ended in chaos and bloodshed.

As the death toll from the furious battle that ended the siege in southern Russia rose to 330, nearly half of them children, Putin admitted authorities had failed to recognize or react effectively to the threats facing his country.

"We ... displayed weakness," the Kremlin leader said in a somber televised address that followed a week of devastating attacks linked to Chechen separatists. "And the weak are always beaten."

President Moshe Katsav and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sent condolence letters to Putin on Saturday.

Grief, anger and uncertainty pervaded Beslan, a normally sleepy town of 30,000, a day after the siege ended with wounded and half-naked children dodging hostage takers' bullets as they fled the school and security forces stormed the building.

"Everyone in this town has lost someone," said Alan, looking for news of his sister who had been at the school. "There could be 600 dead."

Blinking repeatedly to hold back tears, Alan strode through crowds of pale, exhausted people, thronging the town's squares and street corners and scanning lists in a desperate search for news of missing friends and relatives.

Putin, dressed in a dark suit and tie and standing beside a Russian flag, denounced the gunmen who attacked "defenseless children." But, in the first criticism of his troops' handling of the siege, he said Russians had a right to demand more from security forces in times of crisis. Some Western experts have said the troops were unprepared and bungled their attack.

"We must create a much more effective system of security. We must demand that our security forces act at a level appropriate to the level and scope of the new threats," Putin said. "We have to admit we showed no understanding of the danger of processes occurring in our own country and the world at large," he said. "We failed to react appropriately to them and, instead, displayed weakness. And the weak are always beaten."

The Kremlin leader pledged to restore control over the North Caucasus, the part of southern Russia that includes the turbulent region of Chechnya. But Putin, who rejects any notion of talks with separatists, made no direct reference to Chechnya in his 10-minute address.

Barely a family in Beslan, whose hospital Putin visited briefly before dawn on Saturday, was left untouched by the carnage at the Middle School No. 1, in which at least 155 children died as well as many parents and teachers.

Some townspeople vented their anger against Putin for visiting the town so briefly and accused him of posturing for television cameras instead of meeting its traumatized residents.

"He saw no one and talked to no one," said Boris, whose neighbor and her family disappeared. "He just wanted to show the world how young and handsome he is but he hasn't helped and he won't help and he can't stop this happening again."

In the nearby city of Vladikavkaz, hundreds of distraught Ossetians queued outside the overwhelmed morgue to look for missing relatives among the lines of bodies.

Dozens of corpses, their skin the color of powdered milk, lay outside the morgue on stretchers. Most were children or women, their naked bodies covered with black tarpaulin or plastic sheets.

Relatives accompanied by nurses picked their way along row after row of stretchers, holding handkerchiefs or gauze masks to their faces against the stench.

Many of the victims had been held inside the school gym for two days without food or water, too frightened to move, with explosives strung from wires over their heads.

On the third day of their ordeal, a deafening blast and bursts of gunfire shocked the hundreds of children out of their torpor, said Azamat Bekoyev, 14. "Everyone started to scream. It was unbearable ... everyone started to fire randomly."

Bekoyev and many of his friends raced through clouds of smoke to the shattered windows and leaped through them to the yard outside. Others were less fortunate.

Officials ended their search of the charred ruins of the building and said the gunmen had taken more than 1,000 people hostage when they stormed the school on Wednesday.

A total of 26 militants, 10 of them Arabs according to Russian officials, had seized the school, said Deputy Prosecutor-General Sergei Fridinsky. All had been killed.

Putin said earlier he had ordered Beslan and the surrounding region of North Ossetia sealed off, and declared Monday and Tuesday days of national mourning.

"One of the tasks pursued by the terrorists was to stoke ethnic hatred, to blow up the whole of our North Caucasus," he told security officials.

"Anyone who feels sympathetic toward such provocations will be viewed as accomplices of terrorists and terrorism."

His harsh tone suggested no weakening of his determination to crush the rebellion in mainly Muslim Chechnya and keep it within Russia, using tactics criticized by rights activists.

President Bush, campaigning for re-election in November, said he felt for the families of children caught up in the Beslan school siege.

"We saw the horror of terror in Russia and I can just imagine the heartfelt anguish of the moms and dads of those Russian kids," he said during a campaign stop in Ohio.