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Rebels Hold Hundreds in Moscow

Militants seize a theater in mid-performance. They demand that Russians exit Chechnya.

October 24, 2002|John Daniszewski and Sergei L. Loiko | Times Staff Writers

MOSCOW -- In a meticulously planned terrorist strike that brought the war in Chechnya into the heart of Russia's capital, as many as 50 armed men and women took over a theater in mid-performance Wednesday night and held about 650 people hostage, threatening to kill them if police rushed the building.

The masked attackers, who were clad in camouflage and described by witnesses as Chechens laden with weapons and explosives, demanded an immediate end to Russia's war against separatist rebels in their republic.

Coming as the war seemed to have settled into an ugly, deadly standoff, the seizure during a performance of the Russian musical romance "Nord-Ost" represented the guerrillas' boldest challenge yet to the government of President Vladimir V. Putin.

He called off a trip to Germany and Portugal because of the crisis.

The attack came only a few weeks after the third anniversary of Russian troops' reentry into Chechnya, the breakaway republic in the northern Caucasus that had gained de facto independence from the Russian federation after a war for independence in the mid-1990s.

Scores of police and special forces surrounded the Soviet-era theater in Taganka Square and set up a command post.

As the night turned to gray this morning, the situation seemed little changed. Police said that the militants had released 41 people since taking over the theater. One of the last was Olga Treiman. The 18-year-old, nearly eight months pregnant, was let go around 4 a.m.

A refreshment stand worker at the theater who had managed to hide in a bathroom for nearly two hours before being found by the armed militants, Treiman said she was given a haunting message by her guard just before he released her:

"My name is Aslam," he said, according to her. "My people are being killed by the dozen every day in Chechnya. We know we are not going back -- we will die here. But we will die with all these hostages if they don't stop the killing in Chechnya and pull the troops out.... If not, we will all die together. We are ready to die. We will be happy to."

There was no immediate identification of the attackers from authorities. However, Aslambek Aslakhanov, a Chechen representative in the lower house of parliament, said his sources had identified the leader as Movsar Barayev. His uncle, Arbi, was a warlord who gained notoriety as a kidnapper and trader in Russian captives in Chechnya until he was killed last year.

The hostage-takers "have just one demand -- to immediately pull out Russian troops from Chechnya," said another member of parliament, Vyacheslav Igrunov. "Of course, no one can fulfill this demand. But we are ready to talk and talk and talk to save people's lives."

Igrunov estimated that the Chechens could hold out for days because there are food and drinks in the hall.

The guerrilla action erupted at the beginning of the second act of "Nord-Ost" -- "North-East" in German -- which has played to full houses for a year.

"I was enjoying the show when some people jumped on the stage dressed in camouflage uniforms and wearing black masks," said Alexei Ryabov, who was attending the performance with his mother as a present on the eve of his 14th birthday. "One shot in the air with what looked like a Kalashnikov.

"He shot into the air again and screamed, 'We are at war here! This is war!' He looked just like the Chechens [fighters] that we see on television," Alexei said. "Everyone began screaming and jumping around, and they began shooting into the air again."

The boy said he saw about 30 armed men and women. Police placed the number of attackers at between 40 and 50. Among themselves they spoke a Caucasian language that Alexei said he could not understand. But when they barked out orders to the crowd, it was in Russian.

"Then [the gunman] said, 'Are there Georgians in the audience? Stand up. And little children? You can go,' " the boy said.

Alexei was among about 18 children and about a dozen ethnic Georgians or other nationalities from the Caucasus who were allowed to leave the theater. As he filed out, forced to leave his mother behind, he could see the armed militants laying down cables in the hall and across the stage.

"They said we have a bomb here and the hall is now mined," he said.

Another person lucky to get away was cast member Ratyom Nikolayev, a 23-year-old actor who plays the father of the main character in Act 1 and then joins the chorus in Act 2.

"I was standing in the wings, waiting for my entrance, when I heard shots on the stage," he said. "And then I heard this accented voice saying, "It's war!' "

At that point, the seven cast members on the stage were taken hostage and forced to sit with the audience, he said. Nikolayev and other cast members ran upstairs to a third-floor costume room.

There they grabbed their belongings and started toward the stage door but turned back when they realized that the guerrillas were there. Instead, they retreated to the costume room and bolted themselves in.

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