Fri 3 September, 2004 17:20
By Mark Trevelyan, Security Correspondent
BERLIN (Reuters) - The storming of a school to free hundreds of Russian hostages looked more like a forced response by special forces than a controlled and deliberately initiated raid at a time of their choosing.
That was the prevalent view among about a dozen security analysts speaking after the bloody and chaotic denouement of the three-day drama in which at least a 100 appeared to have died.
"What the Russian government desperately want for this to be is a controlled operation, a controlled siege, a controlled ending to it. This is anything but that," said Hugh McManners, a former member of Britain's SAS special forces.
The idea of an improvised rescue mission was supported by comments from a Russian security official who was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying the authorities had been preparing for more talks, not for a raid.
However, experts were unanimous that the Russians, even if they had not wanted to storm the school, must have made contingenc y plans to do so if the heavily armed militants had started to execute their captives.
"Whether or not the Russians initiated this shootout, they would have had a plan in place for an all-out storming of the school should the worst come to the worst," said Itay Gil, an Israeli counter-terrorist unit veteran.
Charles Heyman, senior defence analyst at Jane's Consultancy Group, said the refusal of the hostage-takers to allow deliveries of food and water would probably have forced the Russians to intervene anyway on Friday.
WILD WEST TACTICS
That being the case, some Western analysts were fiercely critical of the Russian handling of the operation, with one describing it as resembling a "Wild West gun fight". Another called it primitive.
"They were under the illusion that they had an operating capability that they don't have, and they used an outdated technique," said Edward Luttwak, senior fellow and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"I'd like to know if they had turned to foreign experts or if for reasons of national pride it was more important that they do it alone ... Those who launched the blitz were brave but ill- prepared, and they launched a primitive raid that caused many deaths."
Others were especially critical of the authorities' apparent failure to seal off the area with an effective cordon to prevent both emotionally involved civilians from getting mixed up in the rescue mission and militants from escaping the scene. Tass news agency said a number of the rebels appeared to have fled.
"In any normal country there would have been a security perimeter at a distance of 1 km (5/8 mile), and there wouldn't have been a single civilian in the zone," said Claude Moniquet of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Centre.
But he also believed the Russians had no alternative but to storm the school.
"They had no choice in a situation like that, with so many hostages, so many hostage-takers and children who had been held three days without eating or drinkin g ... It would have been difficult for any special services in the world."