European papers are reflecting the shock felt across France and Russia as twin hostage crises, both related to the start of the academic year, loom unresolved. In Russia, one editorial declared that terrorists had crossed “the final barrier” after gunmen stormed a school near the Chechen border and took over 350 hostages, including 130 children. (At press time, reports are that 26 women and children have been released.) Meanwhile, France awaits word of two journalists held in Iraq by a group demanding the country rescind a new law that bars women from wearing headscarves in schools.
The Russian hostage crisis is the apparent culmination of a series of terror attacks, including a suicide bombing in Moscow just hours earlier. Moskovskiy Komsomoletssays the attacks have barely allowed Russia time to catch its collective breath. “There is no time to stop, to make sense of it all, to draw conclusions. We have never before had to undergo such a massive wave of terror. These are no longer isolated attacks by terrorists. This is a real terrorist war,” the paper wrote Thursday. Moskovskaya Pravda used similar language. “A real war is under way,” the paper wrote, mocking the Kremlin’s talk of “peace in Chechnya” being just around the corner.
The grim situation in the school’s gymnasium puts Russian president Vladimir Putin in a tight spot. The use of force does not appear to be a viable option. Nearly everybody recalls the Moscow theater siege almost two years ago, which ended with the deaths of 129 hostages when commandos pumped sleeping gas into the building. Such an ending would put Putin in “serious crisis,” says Munich’s Sueddeutsche Zeitung. On other hand, if Putin “gives in to the hostage-takers, another school will be stormed tomorrow.” (Russian and German translations via BBC Monitoring.)
“There is no question at the moment of opting for force,” one official said. “There will be a lengthy and tense process of negotiation.” Yet it was still unclear late on Thursday what the exact demands of the terrorists were. Some reports indicate they are demanding nothing short of a pullout of Russian troops from Chechnya. Negotiators offered the militants safe passage out of the region, but that offer has reportedly been turned down.
In Poland, where anti-Russian sentiment has deep roots, Warsaw’s Rzeczpospolita said such acts are unjustified, but at the same time laid into the Russian occupation of Chechnya—and Western powers’ complicity in it. “The Russians have been exterminating the Chechens under the complete indifference of the West, sometimes even with its approval,” the paper writes. (Polish translation courtesy Deutsche Welle radio.) German chancellor Gerhard Schröder has been taken to task by opponents on both the right and the left, as well as the press, for praising the recent election in Chechnya, which Europeans monitors have criticized as flawed. “Our wish would be for the chancellor … to find words [for Russia] as frank as those he used towards the real ally, the United States,” wrote Die Welt. (German translation courtesy BBC Monitoring.)
Meanwhile, in France, the demands of Iraqi insurgents that France rescind its anti-headscarf law have sparked a wave of national solidarity. The Dutch paper De Volkskrant put it nicely when it wrote that the hostage takers clearly have no idea how a democracy works. In France itself, where French Muslim groups that oppose the headscarf ban have come out strongly against the Iraqi militants, Le Monde congratulated France on how well it was coping with the situation. The crisis has “given rise to a movement of national unity … unthinkable only a few days ago,” the paper wrote, adding: “[W]e cannot but rejoice at seeing the Muslims of France taking up the front line in the defence of the republic.” (French translation courtesy BBC Monitoring.)
For Spain’s El Pais, the implication that hostage takers can use terror to influence domestic policy is a threat to democracies everywhere. “We’re all hostages now,” wrote the paper. “Nationality does not matter.”