An unknown Chechen rebel group called the Black Widows organised the siege of a school in the Russian city of Beslan in which hundreds of children, their parents and teachers were killed.
Authorities in the Russian capital insist Al Qaeda-sponsored militants, including at least 10 Arabs, were responsible for the tragedy. But independent sources have indicated from day one of the bloody event that more than five armed women were not only among the militants, but that one of them led the group.
In the past few years, Shamil Basayev, an extremist Chechen separatist leader, has owned responsibility for many incidents in which innocent civilians have been killed. But this time there has been no word from Basayev, leaving the media guessing.
Some journalists in Moscow received anonymous calls on the second day of the siege in Beslan, saying the extremists had communicated their demands to the authorities but the latter were not making them public. The demands included the expulsion of Russian troops from Chechnya and the release of more than 8,000 Chechen prisoners from Russian jails.
The anonymous callers also claimed that the group responsible for the siege called itself Black Widows of Chechnya and comprises women whose husbands and other loved ones had been killed by Russian troops over the last 10 years.
The name Black Widows surfaced in July 2003 when a Chechen woman, Zarema, was arrested in Moscow with a bomb in her bag. An explosives expert was brought in to defuse the bomb, but it went off and killed him. A Moscow court found Zarema guilty of terrorism and attempted murder and sentenced her to 20 years in prison.
The woman told investigators that she belonged to the Black Widows of Chechnya, a group whose aim is to wreak vengeance on Russians for killing their husbands and children.
Another source said the name of the woman leading the Beslan operation was Khaula Nazirov, a 45-year-old widow from Grozny, the Chechen capital. Her 18-year-old son, 16-year-old daughter, and some other relatives were also part of the operation. They attacked the school because Nazirov's husband was tortured to death in a Russian military camp five years ago, while some of her children's cousins were killed when Russian troops bombed a school in Chechnya some years ago.
The latest wave of violence in Russia is related to the presidential election held in Chechnya on August 29. President Vladimir Putin visited Grozny a few days before the election to convey the impression of complete peace in the region. He also rejected the possibility of talks with the separatists.
Violence began two weeks before the election. More than 46 people were killed in the first three weeks of August in Chechnya, but Russian authorities continued to downplay the situation.
Two planes were destroyed near Moscow on August 25 by suicide bombers, killing more than 90 people. But once again the government claimed there was no clear evidence of terrorism. It was Moscow Times that published the names of two Chechen women suicide bombers who destroyed the planes. Amnat Nagayeva, 30, destroyed the Tu-134 and Satsita Dzhebirkhanova, 37, destroyed the Tu-154. All their relatives went underground after the event. Both women were close friends and lost their husbands a few years ago in the Chechen war.
After this incident and the election in Chechnya, it was only to be expected that the rebels would increase their attacks, but common Russians were unaware of the situation because the largely State-controlled media had carried on chanting that things were now normal in the breakaway southern republic.
Last month I was the first Pakistani journalist ever to enter Chechnya. I was with two dozen other journalists from European and Arab countries. All of us were stopped from visiting polling stations in Grozny after 3 pm because there were no voters. We were all taken to the 46th Brigade headquarters of the Russian army and confined to the camp.
The next day the authorities announced that pro-Moscow candidate Ali Alikhanov had got 73 percent of the votes and would succeed Akhmad Kadirov as president. Kadirov was killed on May 9 in a bomb blast at the Grozny stadium.
Immediately after the results were announced, Alikhanov claimed he would bring peace and stability to Chechnya. But when we were coming back from Grozny to Moscow, people in the streets were openly expressing their fear that Russia is headed for big trouble. The day we arrived in Moscow, we witnessed another suicide bombing at a metro station in which 10
people were killed. Once again a Chechen woman was behind the operation.
We were told by some Chechens in Moscow that most of the Black Widows are not very well educated, have little knowledge of Islam, and don't know that killing innocents in the name of Islam is forbidden. These widows are simply looking for revenge. They are being trained by fighters of Shamil Basayev, who is known to have had contacts with Osama bin Laden in the past.
Dmitry Peskov, an official in the president's office in Moscow, told us that Chechen rebels are getting arms from the thriving black market in the Central Asian states. He said Russian authorities had recovered Pakistani, Turkish and Bosnian passports from some militants killed recently in an operation on the border with Georgia. He believed the militants were hiding in Georgia and returning on fake documents.
Peskov said the Pakistani passports were printed in Moscow, which meant the Pakistani government was not directly responsible for aiding the Chechen militants. Some other sources claimed that Russian intelligence had received information many weeks ago that some Chechen women trained in Pakistani tribal areas as suicide bombers were heading for Russia, but the government in Moscow did not comment on it.
Official sources in Moscow refused to say why the demands of the militants who held the Beslan school hostage were not made public, but some observers think the whole affair was mishandled by Russian security forces.
According to sources, the militants sent a message through a woman that they wanted to address a press conference to explain why they had targeted a school.
The Russian authorities had initially indicated that they were ready to negotiate, but it turned out that they were only buying time for a military operation.
When commandos stormed the school, three women suicide bombers blew themselves up, killing hundreds of others along with them.
The whole of Russia is in shock now.
The ruthless Black Widows have successfully shown that all is not right with Chechnya, and that they will not accept an ex-police officer as the new president.
Putin must engage the separatists in dialogue. He can still talk to Aslan Maskhadov, the moderate Chechen general who served in Afghanistan as a Soviet army officer for many years.
Maskhadov was accepted as president of Chechnya in 1997, when he contested the election against Shamil Basayev on a platform demanding independence from Russia. But two years later, Russian troops attacked Chechnya and seized Grozny, forcing Maskhadov to flee into exile, after he failed to stop Basayev from organising an insurgency in neighbouring Dagestan.