During a media conference held for the benefit of foreign journalists on Monday, in which Putin announced there would be no public inquiry into the tragedy, it was made clear the bloody siege was ultimately an al-Qaida crime beyond political solution.

Putin said that neither Washington nor Brussels currently negotiates with Usama bin Ladin, so why would Moscow.

"You find it possible to set some limitations in your dealings with these bastards [al-Qaida network members], so why should we talk to people who are child killers?" he asked European and American journalists.

And the premier who promised Russians he would "waste" separatist rebels "in the outhouse" continues to enjoy significant support for his point of view.

Among the 130,000 people who attended an officially organised rally against terrorism on Tuesday, many carried posters reading "Putin, We're With You".

The first public opinion poll conducted since the hostage crisis indicates that few hold the president responsible.

But Russian newspapers have printed numerous articles downplaying any link to al-Qaida. Even initial government-controlled TV reports that 10 Arab hostage-takers were found among the dead proved to be entirely baseless.

Avoiding the issue

Mainstream pro-government newspapers castigated the Kremlin for failing to acknowledge its own responsibility in the deaths of hundreds of children and adults in the Beslan school siege and dismissed the "international terror" claims.

Journalist Valery Panyushkin told Aljazeera.net on Tuesday that the phenomenon of blaming al-Qaida was just a means to avoid awkward questions.

No proof has been provided that
hostage-takers included Arabs

"When the government talks to us about 'international terrorism', I understand that simply as a means to avoid talking about having to finish this war [in Chechnya]."

The daily Kommersant on Saturday said linking such events to international terrorism "allows governments all over the world not to assume their responsibilities for the deaths of their citizens".

"It is as if all the children did not die because of a war in Chechnya that has been going on for 10 years," it added.

Media criticism

Liberal legislator Vladimir Rizhkov added his weight to public criticism of the government in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta on Monday.

"Responsibility lies without doubt with President Putin, with the FSB security services and the Interior Ministry. You cannot hide behind the theme of international terrorism," he wrote.

Since the bloody end to three-day siege, Putin has made precious little mention of the war-torn republic, whose instability is seen as the root cause for a siege and the downing of two passenger planes.

The Vedemosti newspaper reacted to the omission: "It is strange that the president neglected the question of Chechnya in his address [to the nation on Saturday] ... the latest attacks are linked to the situation in Chechnya."

Burden of responsibility

Russian analyst Dr Sagramoso prefers not to apportion blame for the staggering 40% dead and 40% wounded casualty figures from the school siege.

But she confirms that the Kremlin's own policies are acting as the catalyst for a violent struggle in the Caucasus.

"Stalin may have been brutal, but at least he didn't kill us like the 150,000 Russian troops currently stationed in Chechnya – 'policing' a nation of well under 710,000"

Usman Ferzaouli,
Chechnya's deputy foreign minister-in-exile

"There can be no doubt that Moscow's policies in Chechnya have radicalised sections of society there," she said.

Receiving scant media attention, a US analyst says, the lines separating political and security leaders in Chechnya have become increasingly blurred.

Penn University's Peter Forster says the brutal tactics employed by the Russian authorities in Chechnya – embodied by the notorious "cleansing operations" in which individuals are rounded up and disappeared – have alienated a large slice of the regional population and left a people without hope for a better future.

Pro-government paramilitaries

"Reliance on force perpetuates the emergence of quasi-government controlled militias such as the Kadyrovsky group in Chechnya perpetuates the perception of government incompetence and corruption, while heightening the population's hatred for all security forces," Forster told Aljazeera.net on Wednesday.

Regional residents - frustrated with a government that neither protects nor respects them – are tending to sympathise with opposition groups, and may establish havens for the groups' members, he added.

"As frustration mounts the number of recruits flowing into the radical Islamic camp seems to grow. Reports indicate that upwards to 10% of the Chechen population now supports extremist elements."

This comes as little surprise to Usman Ferzaouli – Chechnya's deputy foreign minister-in-exile – who told Aljazeera.net that more the 28% of the population had been eliminated by Russian soldiers in the last decade.

After more than 308,000 Chechen civilians have been killed in a ''slow genocide'' barely recognised by the West, Ferazouli concluded: "Stalin may have been brutal, but at least he didn't kill us like the 150,000 Russian troops currently stationed in Chechnya – 'policing' a nation of well under 710,000."

Policy change needed

Russian policy advisers say that continuing to blame attacks on international elements - while turning a blind eye to human-rights abuses in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan - is a recipe for more Beslans.

Russians want security but Putin
is unlikely to change his policy

Sergei Karaganov, head of the Council for Security and Defence Policy and a former Putin adviser, told the Valdai forum on Friday that "it's not Putin's problem to convince the world that it is international terrorism.

"He has to persuade the Russians that it is. They clearly see the roots as lying in Chechnya," said Karaganov, who chaired the forum's security panel.

Former intelligence officer Yury Kobaladze, a member of the same thinktank as Karaganov, said that Russia's policy in the entire Caucasus is overtly aggressive and needed to change – insisting the "heavy-handed" approach in dealing with Chechen aspirations had to go.

And Sagramoso adds that unless Moscow considers using nuclear weapons, it is difficult to envisage a military solution to Chechnya that Putin has not already tried.

Knee-jerk reaction

But Putin came to power as the strongman who could guarantee security, and with a supposedly iron grip over national TV stations. This is an image the premier is unlikely to give up lightly.

Despite no investigation, Russia's Federal Security Service has offered a $10 million reward for information that would help "neutralise" two Chechen rebel leaders who have little in common.

Moscow accuses Shamil Basayev and Aslan Maskhadov of being behind the Beslan siege, the two men who represent the Islamist and nationalist separatists respectively.

But the few Russian and international journalists likely to criticise a manhunt for the moderate Maskhadov – who condemned the siege and rejected any connection to it - have found themselves detained, sacked or poisoned in the last week.

No government challenge

On Monday, Izvestia's editor - Raf Shakirov - was forced to resign for his in-depth coverage of the siege, coverage that embarrassed the three main Russian TV channels controlled by the government.

Aslan Maskhadov denounced the
siege and denies responsibility

Other reporters, such as radio journalist Andrei Babitsky, were also prevented from covering the siege. Arabic television station, al-Arabiya, says its Moscow correspondent was prevented from filing reports on Beslan, and Georgia says two of its journalists had been detained.

And one of the most outspoken critics of Putin's Chechen policy, Anna Politkovskaya, was mysteriously poisoned on her way to the cover the siege, according to the Moscow Times.

The journalist has repeatedly infuriated Moscow by reporting brutal treatment of Chechen prisoners with Abu Ghraib-style treatment. And with national TV unprepared to question government policy in Chechnya, security in Russia is unlikely to improve.