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Putin blasts U.S. on terror stance

From CNN Moscow Bureau Chief Jill Dougherty

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The first of many funerals begin in the Russian town of Beslan.

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• Timeline:  How siege unfolded
• Eyewitness:  Death and horror
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Do you agree with President Putin that the Soviet Union collapse left Russia unable to respond to attacks?
Chechnya (Russia)
Vladimir V. Putin

MOSCOW, Russia (CNN) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that mid-level officials in the U.S. government were undermining his country's war on terrorism by supporting Chechen separatists, whom he compared to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Putin's charge, made in a meeting with a group of western foreign policy experts, came just days after hundreds of people, mostly children, died in the bloody end to the Beslan siege.

Putin also defended his government's decision to storm the school and said the hostage holders had begun shooting children out of boredom.

His comments did not suggest the final raid was triggered by the shooting of children.

In the wide-ranging meeting which lasted almost four hours, Putin said he likes President Bush, calling him a friendly, decent, predictable person.

But Putin said each time Russia complained to the Bush administration about meetings held between U.S. officials and Chechen separatist representatives, the U.S. response has been "we'll get back to you" or "we reserve the right to talk with anyone we want."

Putin blamed what he called a "Cold War mentality" on the part of some U.S. officials, but likened their demands that Russia negotiate with the Chechen separatists to the U.S. talking to al Qaeda.

These are not "freedom fighters," Putin said. "Would you talk with Osama Bin Laden?" he asked.

Putin said the Chechen separatists are trying to ignite ethnic tensions in the former Soviet Union and it could have severe repercussions.

"Osama Bin Laden attacked the United States saying he was doing it because of policies in the Middle East," Putin said. "Do you call him a freedom fighter?"

Putin's comments came a few weeks after the U.S. granted asylum to Ilias Akhmadov, the "foreign minister" of the Chechen separatist movement.

The Russian president also justified the rescue operation in Beslan, conceding that it took time to mobilize the operation.

He said Russian special forces stormed the school knowing they themselves were likely to be killed.

In one dramatic moment, Putin said Russian security forces overheard a disturbing walkie-talkie conversation between the terrorists:

"What are you doing? Why? I hear some noise. What's going on? I'm just in the middle of shooting some children."

"They were bored," Putin said. "So they shot children."

Putin said investigators determined the hostage takers included 10 fighters from "Arab" countries, along with others from the former Soviet Union and one person from North Ossetia where the hostage crisis unfolded.

Putin said the terrorists' goal was to ignite conflict between two local ethnic groups, the Ingush and the Ossetians.

In other comments, Putin said Russia would take its own approach to democratic reform.

"We'll do this at our own pace," he said. Democracy can mean different things in different countries, he said.

"In Russia, democracy is who shouts the loudest," he said. "In the U.S., it's who has the most money."

Asked about the U.S. presidential race, Putin was complimentary of President George W. Bush, saying he likes him. He is a friendly, decent, predictable person, but "it is not about personalities," Putin said.

He said polls in Russia show 7 percent support for Bush, and 25 percent for Democratic challenger John Kerry.

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