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Attack or negotiate
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, 03 2007
Attack or negotiate. TheBeslan tragedy and the Peruvian experience
 ...Three years ago, right before our eyes, a bloody drama unfolded http://www.vremya.ru/2007/158/4/186166.html when armed terrorists captured more than 1,100 hostages in a school in the North Ossetian town of Beslan. Twoyears earlier, a similar attack took place in a theatrical center of the capital, on Dubrovka Street. Hostage taking, unfortunately, has become a commonplace, modern-day reality.
In such cases there are two possible actions: to attack, or to negotiate. Theactions of the authorities in such terror acts are independent of the nature of the country’s political regime, or, to put in bluntly, the authorities do not necessarily espouse democratic ideals when trying to avoid a combat solution or minimize casualties during an assault.

Here is a classic example.

, the capital city of Peru. December 17th, 1996. Christmas Eve. Catholics are in an atmosphere of peace and goodwill, while at the residence of the Japanese ambassador to Peru they are celebrating a national holiday the birthday of the Emperor. Over800 people have gathered in the embassy, and the guests include senior officials, foreign diplomats, and a business delegation from Japan. According to unofficial data, Peruvian head of state Alberto Fujimori is expected to arrive.

During this time of holiday, a group of heavily armed thugs from the Tupac Amaru revolutionary movement neutralizes the guards, making a lightning raid and taking everyone hostage. Themilitants demand the unconditional release of their comrades participants in terrorist acts that had been convicted or are in custody and under investigation. Otherwise, the hostages are threatened with death.

The bandits, realizing that it is impossible to hold so many hostages in such a limited space, immediately release the women. Themale hostages are divided up among the rooms of mansion. Thebuilding has living quarters, of course, but they were designed to accommodate only the ambassador's family and servants. Itbecomes incredibly crowded.

In such circumstances an assault is ruled out, as it would inevitably result in a bloody mess. Itcannot be allowed for another reason: the terrorists, including the women among them, are not just heavily armed, with assault rifles and ammunition, grenades and other weapons, they constantly wear body armor covered with special belts that look like ammo belts. Only, instead of bullets, these belts hold sticks of dynamite: if they were to be hit by bullets, they would explode like bombs. Thehostages’ chances of staying alive in the case of an assault are practically zero.

The Peruvian government, without hesitation, decides to begin negotiations. Peruvian politicians and media, G-8 governments, and the world community, support them. Atfirst the Labor Minister, under the authority of the president, leads the negotiations, then the Red Cross and the Primate of Lima, Archbishop Juan Luis Cipriani, who enjoys enormous prestige, replace him. TheArchbishop not only meets with the militants, but with the captives, and gives items of worship to anyone.

During the course of these contacts, they manage to achieve many things: regular feeding of the residence’s inhabitants as well as delivery of essential medicines, changes of underwear and clothing, and letters from relatives. Thesick, foreign diplomats, and people of no interest to raiders, are gradually released, and so the number of hostages over time is reduced to 72.

During these protracted negotiations, they refine the prisoner lists and procedures for filing individual appeals, as well as routes, means of transport, and place of delivery of the soon to be pardoned prisoners. Alot of other topics are discussed, including technical details.

All his lulls the terrorists, giving them an impression that military action has been ruled out. Thisis confirmed by the peaceful attitude of the authorities and an open appeal to the head of state by prisoners, saying that bloodshed is unacceptable. Meanwhile, Alberto Fujimori makes a lighting-fast trip to Havana to discuss with the hostage-taking group’s ideological mentor, Fidel Castro, the possibility of sending the terrorists in Cuba, or at least getting them to make greater concessions.

With bated breath, the country lives in suspense. Hundreds of movie, television, and documentary producers gather from around the world and hold around the clock vigils on nearby streets and roofs. Peruvian press, television, and radio networks provide detailed coverage of every vicissitude in the epic, which by now has acquired the character of a drama. Afterwards, the authorities reproach none of them for “aiding and abetting the terrorists” (ed: an accusation made by Moscow after ‘Nord-Ost’ and Beslan).

Parallel to all this, under the personal guidance of the Peruvian head of state, with the consent of the Japanese government of Japan, and under great secrecy, a plan is being developed to force the release of hostages. Outside the city, in an empty, thoroughly camouflaged and well-guarded site, they erect a life-size model of the building. Herea commando group methodically rehearses various assault options. Atthe same time, an underground tunnel is being constructed across the street and directly beneath the area of the residence. Sounds of this work are drowned out by high-power loudspeakers, through which, around the clock, they play appeals to the terrorists to release the hostages, and specially selected music in the style of hard rock.

The many months of stress, lack of sleep, noise and psychological warfare, have their effect. Theterrorists’ passion for combat subsides, and they are in a state of exhaustion.

On April 22nd, 1997, convinced that they are completely ready, the president gives the order to proceed with the operation. Thelightning attack lasts only a few seconds. Simultaneously, from different points inside the building, commandos pop out. Nothaving time to grab their weapons, all 14terrorists are killed. Thecommandos, however, are not without casualties: two officers are killed, and several wounded. Oneof the hostages, an elderly member of the Peruvian Supreme Court, suffers a heart attack, and efforts to save him fail. Several people escape with minor injuries, including then-Foreign Minister Francisco Tudela. Notone of the terrorists disappears, and not one is unaccounted for.

Thus ends the 126-day epic. Itsepilogue is an expressive picture of the Peruvian president: accompanied by the enthusiastic shouts and cheers from tens of thousands of his citizens, he rides on the running board of a bus in the convoy carrying the extremely tired, now-former hostages to a military hospital.

Of course we are not talking about copying someone else’s experience. Every act of terrorism of this sort has a unique set of circumstances, but is still useful to know.

If we compare the general outline of the actions of the Russian and Peruvian authorities with regards to terrorist acts that involve hostage taking, the fundamental differences are glaring. InPeru, priority was given to dialogue to liberate those in distress. Anattack on the terrorists was seen as a fallback. InRussia, however, only volunteers negotiated with the terrorists, and information gleaned from anyone visiting Dubrovka was carefully sifted by the security services for anything useful for military action.

After the ‘Nord-Ost’ tragedy http://www.vremya.ru/2002/199/4/28545.html there were two days of confusion and helplessness as the authorities constantly changed their reports of victory, and the exploits of the security services. Allsorts of PR campaigns were run. Later, the situation was repeated in Beslan: the authorities essentially refused to engage in dialogue with the bandits, and security forces stormed the school. Theoutcome was awful. Nevertheless, virtually all officials involved in the tragic outcome still quietly live and work far from the scene of the tragedy. TheRussian president promised to investigate and punish those responsible, but not one government representative has suffered http://www.vremya.ru/2007/95/46/179622.html not even the rank and file police officers that missed the terrorists and their weapons, not to mention the heads of the Interior Ministry and FSB.

The parliamentary inquiry into the Dubrovka tragedy was suspended, and the Parliamentary Commission on Beslan was purely a formality, daring to contradict the official version of the Prosecutor General that exonerated all of the State’s representatives for not preventing the loss of more than 300lives in the school in Beslan.

There can be no justification for militants taking hostages, but this does not mean that the government has no responsibility to preserve the lives of people caught in the thrall of the terrorists.

By Emil DABAGHIAN, senior fellow at the Institute of Latin America Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences

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