Russia blasts EU siege statement

REUTERS

Sat 4 September, 2004 13:49

MOSCOW/VALKENBURG, Netherlands (Reuters) - Russia has branded "blasphemous" a request by the European Union's Dutch presidency for an explanation to the bloody end of a mass hostage seizure at a school by Chechen gunmen.

Some EU foreign ministers appeared to back away from the call by Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot, saying it was wrong to question Russia's handling of the tragedy, and a Dutch spokesman said on Saturday Bot had only been seeking information.

More than 320 people, almost half of them children, were found dead after troops stormed a school in the southern Russian town of Beslan, where the separatists held more than 1,000 hostages for 53 hours.

In a statement in the name of the presidency of the 25-nation EU, Bot said on Friday that all countries should work together to stop such tragedies.

"But we also would like to know from the Russian authorities how this tragedy could have happened," he added.

The Russian Foreign Ministry reacted with outrage.

"Mr. Bot's elaborations are an a bsolute contrast with the wide international support and solidarity with Russia in these tragic days," the ministry statement said.

"Inappropriate statements by the Dutch minister look odious ... and blasphemous," it added. "We expect explanations from the Dutch side."

At Valkenburg in the Netherlands, where the EU ministers were meeting, Swedish Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds told reporters she understood the Russian reaction and Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen said it would be "a very premature and wrong judgement" to fault the Russian security forces.

But diplomats said that in the EU meeting, former Soviet republic Latvia said the Union should react more strongly to the Russian handling of the end of the siege.

Interfax news agency later said that the Dutch ambassador had been summoned to the Foreign Ministry over Bot's statement.

A Dutch Foreign Ministry spokesman said the minister had never intended to criticise Russian actions.

"Because of the large number of casualties, in order to un derstand better what happened, he'd like information about what happened. He did not say the Russians did something wrong," the spokesman said.

"The Russian government has taken this like a criticism, which was not the intention of the minister," he said.