Russian special forces end siege

Guerrilla leader dead

some rebels escape

October 26, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Russian special forces stormed the theater where about 40 heavily armed Chechen guerrillas held hundreds of hostages early this morning, in a furious exchange of gunfire that reverberated through a southeast Moscow neighborhood.

The firefight, conducted out of sight of the press gathered near the scene, lasted only about 15 minutes. Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Vasiliyev said most of the hostages had been freed, although he confirmed there were casualties.

Thirty-two of the guerillas were killed, he said, including the ringleader, although some of them escaped through the sewer system, authorities said. Several of the hostage-takers were arrested.

Vasilyev said several of the female guerrillas tried to take off their masks and blend with the hostages.

After the fighting, a long line of ambulances started leaving the scene, their blue lights flashing in the gray sleet and snow. City buses carried off small groups of hostages who had not been injured, many of them slumped in their seats behind windows frosted with steam.

At a school a few blocks from the theater, relatives gathered in the gym, singing Orthodox hymns as they waited for word of the fate of their loved ones.

One was 46-year-old Nina Osipova, whose daughter, Olga, 18, was among the more than 600 theater patrons seized Monday by the guerrillas. "It seems to me I can't think of anything," she said, wearing a gray wool coat in the sleet.

The guerrillas had threatened to start shooting their captives at dawn if Russia did not halt military operations in Chechnya.

The threat came after a night of tension and violence. The Chechens, some with explosives strapped to their bodies, had grown edgy inside the crowded and increasingly dirty theater, hostages had said.

"Something bad is in the air," said one hostage, journalist Anna Andrianova, in a cell phone interview quoted in the RIA news agency last night. "People are in a state of alarm. ... The terrorists seem to be getting tired of all this."

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who has contended the hostage-taking was a terrorist act planned outside Russia, called the situation "very grave" a few hours before troops moved in.

"I will tell you straightforwardly that we are dealing with an extremely difficult and absolutely clear situation - the hostage taking - in the building on Melinkov Street," he told leaders of Russia's parliamentary political parties.

He said it was "most correct" to focus on "one task - the preservation of lives of people, who remain in the theater building."

Around 9 p.m. last night, a Russian negotiating team led by former Russian foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov emerged from talks with harsh news. The rebels said they would start shooting hostages unless their demand for an end to the conflict was met.

Friday began with a trickle of hostages emerging from the theater. Seven adults left in the early morning, and eight children - aged 6 to 12 - tumbled out of the theater, which had reportedly been wired with explosives, in the early afternoon. One girl clutched a teddy bear with aviator glasses.

But guerrillas failed to make good on a pledge to a Russian legislator to free all 75 or so of the foreign hostages, including three Americans, who have not been identified.

Negotiators also sought, without success, to secure the release of 20 remaining children, aged 14 and under - including one girl with epilepsy.

U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow emerged from talks with the guerrillas at lunchtime sounding pessimistic. "We're very concerned that no other hostages have been freed and that the terrorists are not prepared to discuss the release of other hostages," he said.

The Islamic rebels said in a tape broadcast on Qatar's Al-Jazeera network that they are prepared to die. "I swear by God we are more keen on dying than you are keen on living," a man in black said. "Each one of us is willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of God and the independence of Chechnya."

One woman hostage was shot and killed while trying to slip away late Wednesday or Thursday morning. Police were still trying to identify her yesterday. Guerillas also fired grenade launchers at two others as they jumped out a window. One was injured.

Kremlin officials seemed increasingly uncomfortable with loud calls by some Russians to stop the fighting in Chechnya, a Russian republic the size of Wales devastated in the past decade by two wars with Russia and constant, bitter feuding among criminal gangs and warlords.

Vasiliyev said yesterday that unauthorized protests in support of the guerrillas' demands would be halted. "You may regard this as a warning to the hotheads who intend to stir up passions," he told the Interfax news agency. "If anything of this kind happens, we will act toughly."

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