Dozens killed as siege is ended

At least 90 hostages and 50 guerrillas dead after ordeal in Moscow

Most of captives survive

In speech to nation, Russian leader assails `international terrorism'

October 27, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Russia's elite counter-terrorism police ended a three-day siege by Chechen guerrillas in the heart of Moscow yesterday, shooting their way into a cultural center after pumping in a disabling gas, nearly wiping out the heavily armed guerrillas and freeing about 700 hostages.

The attack claimed the lives of at least 90 hostages - in some cases under circumstances yet to be explained - and 50 guerrillas, including 18 women, the government said. Hundreds of injured former hostages swamped the city's hospital wards and emergency rooms.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said last night on Russian television that he was grateful to the rescuers, and for the support of other nations against what he called "international terrorism," which he described as "a strong and dangerous enemy, an inhumane and ruthless enemy."

"Until it is defeated, nobody is safe in the world," he said. "But it should be defeated, and it will be defeated."

"We achieved almost the impossible - we saved the lives of hundreds, yes, hundreds of people. We showed that Russia cannot be brought to her knees," he said.

He also acknowledged the heavy loss of life: "We could not save everyone. Forgive us."

The assault began after the guerrillas shot to death two hostages in the early hours of the morning. The guerrillas, who had vowed to kill their hostages for the cause of Chechen independence, had threatened to begin executing all the hostages at dawn.

Sometime after 5 a.m., government forces began pumping a disabling gas through the ventilation system, a gas they have refused to identify. With many of the guerrillas and hostages apparently incapacitated by the gas, Russian forces blew a hole in a wall and then entered the theater with guns firing.

Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov praised the assault, calling it "well-coordinated and efficient." Defending the decision to storm the theater, Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Vasilyev told reporters that "special means were used to counter an extremely dangerous situation of the explosion of the whole building, resulting in numerous casualties."

Raising questions

Some Russians questioned the need for the raid, the heavy casualties and the tactics used. Doctors at several Moscow hospitals said they were treating hundreds of former hostages for the effects of the gas.

Sergei Ignatenko, a spokesman for the Federal Security Service, said the raid was launched only after the guerrillas started executing their captives. But one hostage, speaking live on Echo Moskvy radio during the attack, called it unprovoked.

"The Russians have started all this," said the woman, named Anna, amid screams and gunfire heard over her cell phone. She said the hostages had been watching television when the firing began.

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

Marat Abdurakhimov, an actor held captive, said he was sleeping in a chair when the assault started. "I heard shooting, shooting," he told the television network NTV.

After the assault, television showed the plush red seats of the theater strewn with dead guerrillas. Russian officials initially said that several hostage-takers had escaped but later claimed that all had been killed or captured.

Among the dead was the leader of the guerrilla group, Movsar Barayev, 23. He had served as a bodyguard for his late uncle, Arbi Barayev, who was linked to many kidnappings, including that of three Britons and a New Zealander beheaded in 1998. TV images showed Movsar Barayev lying on his back amid blood and broken glass.

TV broadcasts also showed dead female guerrillas sitting in the theater seats in black robes and veils, heads thrown back or bent over. Bullet holes could be seen in their heads. An emergency worker who entered the hall behind the commandos was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that everyone he saw was slumped in a seat, unconscious.

"Inside there was a sweltering heat and the odor of human excrement. People were in shock, starved and incapacitated," the worker said.

The guerrillas included an Afghan and an otherwise unidentified Middle Eastern man, both of whom were killed, Russian officials said. Two Chechen guerrillas were seized trying to slip away, including one who was captured near a television crew a short distance from the theater.

Gryzlov, the interior minister, said that more than 30 alleged accomplices of the guerrillas had been rounded up in Moscow and elsewhere.

There were no fatalities among the children held in the theater, authorities said. Neither were there any deaths among the roughly 70 foreigners remaining among the hostages, including at least three Americans, as well as Britons, Australians, Austrians and Germans.

Russian officials said several police commandos, called Spetznaz, were injured, none fatally.

Bringing the war home

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