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Police Storm Moscow Theater, Kill Chechen Rebel Leader

Militants had begun to execute captives. Dozens of guerrillas, unknown number of hostages die.

October 26, 2002|John Daniszewski and David Holley | Times Staff Writers

MOSCOW — Police commandos armed with sleeping gas and blazing guns stormed a theater here early today and overcame Chechen separatists holding about 700 hostages. Authorities said they were forced to launch the rescue after rebels began to kill captives.

The leader of the hostage-takers and about 30 of his companions were "liquidated," officials said.

There was still no official word about the toll among the hostages. An Australian diplomat was told that the number was no more than 10, and that none of the estimated 75 foreigners were among the dead. However, a police officer said he saw "a lot of corpses."

In addition, two hostages were confirmed killed before the operation began.

Nevertheless, as former hostages were being taken away in buses, Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Vasilyev told reporters: "We have succeeded in preventing massive death and the destruction of the building" by the militants, who had vowed to die in the name of Islam and for the cause of Chechen independence.

It was a swift and violent ending to a hostage crisis that began Wednesday evening when 40 to 50 Chechen rebels interrupted a performance of a Russian musical and took the audience and most of its cast hostage.

Reporters at the scene began hearing explosions and gunfire about 5:30 this morning. By 7 a.m., it was all over -- with Russian troops in control of the theater and forensic experts examining the corpses.

Several of the hostage-takers were captured and a few may have escaped into the city, Vasilyev said, calling on Muscovites to give them no help and report any sightings to authorities.

"I would like to warn bandits and society that we have all information about them and that if they give up, we will guarantee their lives," he added.

News agency photographers at the scene said they could see "dozens of bodies" being carried off. But it wasn't clear whether they were hostages or the rebels who, some with explosives strapped to their bodies, had accompanied Chechen rebel leader Movsar Barayev on his desperate bid to bring the separatist war to Moscow.

It was also unclear how many of the casualties were in fact dead and how many were suffering the effects of a sleeping gas used in the assault, according to state television reports.

The Chechens' audacious raid, less than three miles from the Kremlin, ignited a fresh debate here about the wisdom of Russia's war in the breakaway Caucasian republic.

At a school where the relatives of the hostages had held their vigil, women could be seen crying and men praying as they waited to hear whether their loved ones would be coming home. When the relatives heard that Barayev was dead, they cheered and whistled their approval.

Valery Shantsev, the deputy mayor of Moscow, said the night's killing began when the Chechens inside the building shot to death a man outside the theater who they believed was trying to enter the building. Later, a spokesman for the police said that the rebels had killed two of the hostages and wounded two others.

When the killing began, police spokesman Pavel Kudryavtsev said, a group of hostages tried to make a break from the building and were shot at by the Chechens. That was when special federal police commandos, the Spetsnaz, moved in.

A Spetsnaz officer, who gave his name only as Andrei, described the storming of the theater to a Times reporter.

"It lasted about 40 minutes. We got a sudden order ... definitely not planned. We believe the nerves of some of the hostages failed, and they decided to try to escape no matter what," he said.

"Naturally, the terrorists started shooting, and that is when we got the order to move in.... We fired and sometimes we could not see the difference between the hostages and those who held them. There are a lot of corpses there, and there are a lot of wounded people."

A hostage named Natalia Skoptseva was on her phone talking to the Echo of Moscow radio station when the assault began.

"We beg you not to storm the building," she was saying.

Just then, another hostage named Anna came on the line.

"They let some gas in," she said, referring to the police. "We feel it. We now are breathing into handkerchiefs. They are taking us! They will kill us! Soldiers are coming!"

The call then became a cacophony of the sounds of shooting and screaming as the assault took place, before the line went dead.

The commercial director for the "Nord-Ost" musical that was showing when the rebels took over recalled the scene he happened upon after the raid.

"When we got permission to go into the building to collect the bodies of our friends, we saw a horrible sight," Dmitri Bogachyov said. "Everything was smashed and ... people were lying around everywhere, on the floor, in the chairs. They looked like they were dead, but in fact were alive. I have never seen anything more horrible in my life, and I am sure the scene will haunt my nightmares for some time."

Russian television gave no details on the type of "sleeping gas" used during the assault.

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