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Chechen Rebels Free 7 More in Standoff

Guerrillas who invaded a Moscow theater and seized 700 hostages also say they'll let 75 foreigners go. One woman is known dead.

October 25, 2002|David Holley and Sergei L. Loiko | Times Staff Writers

MOSCOW — Chechen guerrillas who took over a theater here in mid-performance shot a woman to death, authorities said Thursday, increasing fears for the safety of about 700 remaining hostages.

But in a hopeful sign, seven hostages were released early this morning, the Federal Security Service said, bringing the total freed so far to 45. Later, an agency spokesman said the rebels had agreed to free all 75 foreigners held captive.

Embassies were asked to send representatives to meet their citizens, but the hundreds of Russian hostages were not to be freed.

The situation remained tense.

About 50 relatives of the hostages demonstrated against the Chechnya war outside the theater early today after some of the hostages telephoned to warn that the rebels were threatening to blow up the building unless they did so.

With the theater cordoned off at a distance of several hundred yards and a few armored vehicles visible on streets leading to it, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin issued a statement saying that the main aim of security forces should be "to release the hostages and ensure their maximum safety."

Negotiators spoke with the heavily armed rebels, who seized the hostages Wednesday night and have demanded an end to the Russian government's war on separatists in the southern republic of Chechnya.

Terrified relatives of the captives gathered in the gymnasium of a nearby technical school. Most grimly watched news reports on television, while some quietly sobbed and others told reporters that the captors' demands should be granted.

"I don't understand why this simple, understandable and justifiable demand of the terrorists cannot be met," said Liana Okhapkina, 41, a doctor whose daughter, Zhenya, 19, is among the hostages.

"This war has been going on for eight years," she said. "It killed thousands of people and what is the result? I don't need this war. I don't know anybody who really needs this war. Maybe those who started it. But their children are not among the hostages, so what do they care?"

U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow told reporters that President Bush spoke with Putin and "expressed our condemnation of the terrorist act that is still unfolding here in Moscow, and he offered any support and assistance that the United States could provide."

"We call upon the terrorists to release all hostages -- American, Russian and other nationalities -- immediately and without conditions," Vershbow said.

Three U.S. citizens and a Russian citizen holding U.S. permanent resident status were among the hostages, Vershbow said. British officials reported that a dozen of their citizens were inside.

"I just want to underscore the solidarity of our nation with the Russian people at this difficult time," Vershbow added. "I don't think this is in any way going to help the Chechen cause, but only create more outrage toward anyone who tries to use terrorism for political ends."

Chechens won a degree of autonomy for their republic in the Caucasus region after defeating Russian troops in a 1994-96 war. Russian forces marched back into the republic in 1999 and have battled guerrillas there ever since.

Movsar Barayev, leader of the 30 to 50 guerrillas holding the hostages, rejected the label "terrorist" in an interview with London Sunday Times correspondent Mark Franchetti, who entered the theater Thursday with a Russian negotiating team.

Franchetti told reporters that Barayev had said: "We aren't terrorists, because terrorists ask for money and planes. All we ask for is to pull out the troops from Chechnya."

Barayev's uncle, Arbi, was a warlord who gained notoriety as a kidnapper and trader in Russian captives in Chechnya until he was killed last year.

An Internet site believed linked to the rebels -- www.kav -- posted a statement declaring: "The Chechen moujahedeen have taken over a Moscow theater with 1,000 hostages. The Chechen detachment is led by Movsar Barayev .... In addition to the moujahedeen, there are also 40 widows of Chechen fighters. The building has been mined. All the participants in the operations are also wearing explosives....

"Barayev said that those who have attacked Moscow are kamikaze rebels. The only demand is that the war should end and that an immediate withdrawal of occupation troops from Chechnya should begin.... Barayev also said that the Chechen moujahedeen came to Moscow not to survive, but to die."

Sergei Ignatchenko, a spokesman for the Federal Security Service, or FSB, a successor of the Soviet-era KGB, said Thursday night that about 700 hostages were still being held, including 30 children and the 75 foreigners.

The hostage-takers released the body of the dead woman Thursday afternoon.

"It is a Russian girl, about 20 years of age," Ignatchenko said. "Doctors said she died of a fatal gunshot wound into the chest 16 to 18 hours ago." The woman also had broken fingers on one hand, he said.

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