Chechens seize Moscow theater, take 600 hostage

Guerrillas demand end to war against rebellion

October 24, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MOSCOW - At least 40 Chechen guerrillas wearing masks and camouflage and firing automatic rifles stormed into a crowded theater in Moscow where a popular musical was playing last night, took up to 600 hostages, and threatened to blow up the building.

The guerrillas had wired themselves and the three-story music hall with explosives and appeared to be preparing for an assault by the police, witnesses told Russian television.

Shortly before dawn today, Russia's domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service, said the attackers had begun negotiations and were demanding an end to the war in Chechnya as well as a large amount of money. But later, Moscow police officials denied that talks had been opened or that a ransom demand had been made.

Gunshots rang out periodically after the guerrillas seized the building about 9 p.m., or 1 p.m. EDT. Scattered reports said that one man had been taken to a hospital and that a grenade had been tossed at the police.

Truckloads of police officers and soldiers and at least two armored vehicles surrounded the building and blocked off the tree-lined streets on a night of bone-chilling rain.

Television broadcasts said that President Vladimir V. Putin canceled plans for talks with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in Berlin and ordered the country's elite Alpha counter-terrorist squad to the scene.

A terrified-sounding hostage, speaking from inside the theater on a cell phone, warned the NTV television network that any attempt by the police or soldiers the enter the building would end in carnage.

"Lots of explosives," she said, identifying herself as Tatyana Solnyshkina, "and we beg you not to shoot, not to storm the building. We beg you. Don't start the storm, don't shoot at them. There are girls next to me with lots of explosives on them. Men with machine guns. This is why - don't shoot at them."

In the mass confusion that reigned last night outside the theater, a three-story building that once served as the Palace of Culture for the Moscow Ball-Bearing Factory, very little was established fact.

A Moscow police spokesman, Valery Gribakin, said that 711 tickets had been sold for the performance, and that about 150 audience members had since been freed. But the police were able to produce the names of only 33 freed hostages.

Reporters said they had seen no more than 40 people, many of them children, being escorted out of the 1,163-seat theater, which was staging the hit Russian musical Nord-Ost, German for "Northeast." The musical, an adaption of a popular novel stressing loyalty and patriotism, has been a hit with young audiences.

Witnesses who escaped from the music hall said the gunmen had beaten members of the audience. The attackers identified themselves as a Chechen suicide squad from a group they called the 29th Division.

An Internet site that supports the Chechen separatists, www.kavkaz.org, posted a claim last night that the hostage-takers, who were said to have 16 women among them, included widows of Chechen guerrillas killed in the war. They demanded an end to the war.

The Web site quoted the unit's commander, Mosvar Barayev, as saying that bombs were in the theater and that his squad was there "to die, not to survive."

Aslamek Aslakhanov, a Chechen representative in the lower house of parliament, said his sources had identified the leader as Barayev. His uncle, Arbi Barayev, was a warlord notorious to Russians 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, Vyaschylov Igrunov. "Of course, no one can fulfill this demand. But we are ready to talk and talk and talk to save people's lives."

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

Wire services and one radio station quoted the police as saying that the attackers had threatened to kill 10 members of the audience for every hostage-taker who was harmed.

Others witnesses, including a reporter for the news radio station Echo Moskkvy who was in the building, said the attackers had attached explosives to supporting pillars inside the theater and had pledged to bring the structure down if an attack were launched.

"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 on the eve of his 14th birthday. "We are at war here! This is war!" one said, according to the teen-ager.

The attackers spoke among themselves in a Caucasian language, but when they gave the crowd orders, the used Russian, he said.

Ryabov was among about 18 children and about a dozen ethnic Georgians or other nationalities from the Caucasus who were allowed to leave.

On his way out he saw gunmen laying cables in the hall and across the stage. "They said we have a bomb here and the hall is now mined," he said.

The Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing company, contributed to this article.

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