Chechen Rebels Hold Hundreds in Theater, One Dead
by Larisa Sayenko
October 24, 2002
MOSCOW - A Chechen "suicide squad" held hundreds of people hostage for a second night Thursday in a Moscow theater rigged with explosives, after killing one woman who tried to escape.
The brazen guerrilla attack in the Russian capital, carried out by up to 40 heavily armed men and women seeking a Russian troop withdrawal from their homeland, defied the world community and dealt a humiliating blow to the Kremlin.
The guerrillas, armed with guns, grenades and explosives, held Russian security forces at bay by threatening to blow up the theater and their 700 captives if an attempt was made to storm it.
Two women managed to escape during the tense stand-off which was marked by sporadic negotiations between Russian officials and the Chechens. One was wounded by her Chechen captors as she fled, news agencies quoted officials as saying.
The rebels, calling themselves a suicide squad, made threats on a Chechen Web site and through hostages to blow up the theater or begin killing captives unless their demands were met.
Arab satellite television station al-Jazeera showed a tape of what it said was one of the black-clad male rebels saying: "Each of us is ready to sacrifice for God and the independence of Chechnya. We seek death more than you seek life."
Dr. Maria Shkolnikova, a Russian heart specialist who emerged as an unofficial spokeswoman for the hostages, told Reuters by mobile phone the rebels had wired the theater hall with explosives -- in aisles, seats and even some of the hostages themselves.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, wrestling with his biggest challenge in two and a half years in power, scrapped plans to meet President Bush over the weekend in Mexico and canceled trips to Germany and Portugal to deal with the drama on his doorstep.
Looking grim-faced and drained, he told the nation the rebel operation was a "terrorist act planned abroad," but he said the top priority was to save the lives of the hostages.
World leaders rallied behind the beleaguered Kremlin leader and called for united action against acts of terror.
Bush and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder called him to offer support and solidarity while the U.N. Security Council, acting at Russia's request, unanimously condemned the "heinous" guerrilla attack and demanded the hostages' release.
Britain said it was sending a team of counterterrorist experts to help secure the safe release of the hostages.
Police said the guerrillas shot a woman dead as she tried to escape when they seized control of the theater about three miles southeast of the Kremlin Wednesday night.
"She was killed yesterday as she tried to escape during the takeover," FSB security service spokesman Sergei Ignatchenko said.
FSB officials said 75 foreigners, including Americans, Australians, Austrians, Britons and Germans, were among the roughly 700 men, women and children being held in conditions that grew grimmer by the hour. Diabetics and people with heart conditions were among the hostages, officials said.
"Nerves are at breaking point. The situation in the hall has become more aggressive. You can sense it in people's voices," Shkolnikova told Ekho Moskvy Thursday night.
On the outside, Muscovites were trying to contact their kin inside the hall by mobile phone. But phone batteries were running down and communications becoming more infrequent.
Contacts with the hostage-takers appeared erratic at best.
The Chechen news Web site www.kavkaz.org reported what it said was a statement by the attackers' commander, Movsar Barayev. "There's more than a thousand people here. No one will get out of here alive and they'll die with us if there's any attempt to storm the building," the Web site quoted him saying.
He called on Putin to stop the war and pull his troops out of Chechnya if he wanted to save the hostages' lives.
The rebels freed around 150 hostages Wednesday, including up to 20 children and some Muslims, and a few more Thursday, among them three children and a Briton in his 50s or 60s.
But Iosif Kobzon, a member of parliament and entertainer who was taking part in negotiations, told Interfax news agency: "When I asked them to free others, they said they had already let the three smallest ones go and would release no one else."
Another negotiator, liberal deputy Irina Khakamada, outlined the rebels' demands to a Putin aide after meeting the guerrillas, but no details were so far made public. Interfax said Grigory Yavlinsky, a prominent politician who heads the liberal Yabloko bloc, was expected to join negotiations.
FIGHTING SINCE 1994
The hostage-taking is the most audacious Chechen attack since the first Chechen war of 1994 to 1996.
Russia has fought on and off since 1994 to quell the revolt in Chechnya, which costs lives daily among troops and civilians.
Putin's decision as a politically inexperienced prime minister in October 1999 to order troops back into Chechnya helped to catapult him into the Kremlin.
Western accusations of human rights abuses against civilians in devastated Chechnya have died down since Putin threw Moscow's backing behind the U.S.-led global war on terrorism following last year's Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.
Russia has drawn attention to Arab fighters in Chechnya and accuses the rebels of links to radical Islamist groups like the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda, whom Washington blames for the Sept. 11 attacks. But privately, Western diplomats play down any Chechen involvement by al Qaeda.
'DON'T OPEN FIRE'
An armored personnel carrier was parked in a street near the theater, along with six trucks full of Interior Ministry troops, all in helmets and armed. Some wore masks.
Hostage Tatyana Solnyshkina, speaking by mobile telephone, addressed security forces live on NTV television: "There are a lot of explosives. Don't open fire on them. I am very scared, I ask you please do not start attacking."
Gennady Gutkov, a member of parliament's security committee, said: "The building will not be stormed at the initiative of the Russian side if the terrorists do not undertake actions to kill large numbers of hostages."
Crowds of relatives waited outside the theater for news.
"It's a nightmare," said Yekaterina Ostankhova, a woman in her 70s whose 19-year-old grandson, a theater decorator, was inside. "What's next? This is the capital of all places. I've come here and I've heard nothing. I'm just standing here.
"I would be willing to go inside, even if they kill me."
Copyright © Reuters 2002
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