Sun, Oct 16, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Russian style of handling conflict marked by denial


Armed, desperate militants were holding hostages in a police station and a gift shop under the shroud of darkness; an armored personnel carrier fired at the station. This, officials said, was "a situation under control."

The violence that terrified the southwestern Russian city of Nalchik this week, leaving at least 108 people dead, was the latest example of how officials respond to calamity with slippery rhetoric, unsupported statements, confusion and apparent attempts to play down the seriousness of events.

The flow of information is far more open than during the Soviet period, when officials simply refused to report disasters such as airplane crashes or, as in the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion, admit to them late and underplay their severity.

But the hostage-takings, submarine sinkings and other troubles that have plagued the country in recent years all were marked by contradictory and incomplete reports that added to the events' anxiety.

When a mini-sub became disabled in August, navy spokesmen at first tried to minimize the incident, saying reporters should not dramatize it -- even as authorities were contacting Britain and the US to get emergency help.

The first statement that Nalchik was under control came less than three hours after militants launched coordinated attacks on police and security facilities. It was from Nikolai Lyapin, deputy media minister for the Kabardino-Balkariya republic where Nalchik is the capital.

"There is silence in the town. Calm pervades the government building," the ITAR-Tass news agency quoted him as saying. "Militants have not seized a single building or school."

Technically, this may have been true because the fighters were not in control of the buildings they had invaded, but clashes at several locations were continuing.

The "under control" assertion was repeated by Dmitry Kozak, the Russian president's envoy to the region, and then by Deputy Interior Minister Alexander Chekalin. The latter proclaimed that the siege would end within an hour -- a full day before officials announced it was finally over.

Chekalin also sidestepped questions on whether there were civilian casualties, saying "I would have known if we had any."

The Emergency Situations Ministry said on Friday that 18 civilians were among the 108 reported killed. Kozak was the first official to state publicly that militants were holding hostages in the police building. But when asked about the presidential envoy's statement, regional Interior Ministry spokeswoman Marina Kyasova denied that there were hostages.

On Friday, it became clear that at least 18 people were taken hostage -- and officials said an unspecified number of children were among them. Other conflicting official statements also were pronounced on Friday. Around noon, the republic's Prime Minister Gennady Gubin announced that "all points of active resistance have been put down." Some 90 minutes later, the regional president's chief of staff, Oleg Shandirov, said militants remained holed up in the prison's administration building.

The delayed announcement that there were child hostages darkly resonated with Russia's worst terrorist attack -- last year's seizure of a school in Beslan. In that case, officials sharply understated the number of hostages for more than a day, before stating amid increasing complaints from local residents that more than 1,000 people were being held.

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