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90 Hostages Killed in Moscow Siege

October 26, 2002

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MOSCOW (AP) _ Gunfire rattled inside the theater where Chechen rebels held hundreds hostage before Russian special forces pumped it full of sleeping gas at dawn Saturday and stormed the building, killing 50 rebels and freeing more than 700 captives in the third day of a hostage drama. The Health Ministry said 90 captives were killed.

The Chechens seized the theater Wednesday night during a popular musical and demanded President Vladmir Putin pull the Russian army out of their homeland where war has raged for most of the past decade. The brazen takeover stunned Moscow and all of Russia.

Many of the freed hostages were taken to hospitals in city buses still unconscious or having difficulty walking. Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Vasilyev did not say what type of gas was used during the raid.

Hours after the operation, Vasilyev said that 67 hostages had died in the crisis, but the Health Ministry later said the death toll had risen to 90, Russian news agencies reported.

The source of the higher figure suggested several freed hostages died in hospitals, but the reports citing the Health Ministry said nothing about the cause of death.

Vasilyev did not specify whether the hostage death toll included people known to have been killed by the gunmen before the special forces raid. He said no children were among the dead, nor were the estimated 75 foreign hostages harmed. His figures showed about 750 hostages were freed.

The Federal Security Service later said 50 captors died, including 18 women, and three were detained.

``We are grieving with those close to the 67 hostages who were lost. We couldn’t save them,″ an emotional Vasilyev said. It was unclear how the hostages were killed or who killed them.

Putin visited with some of the freed hostages at Sklifosovsky Hospital.

Russian television showed Putin, clad in a white doctor’s coat, speaking with some of the hostages.

``Stay here and rest,″ Putin told a young man identified as Nikita, who replied ``OK, I will stay and rest, but I want to take a shower.″

The hostage takers had thoroughly mined the building. Hostages said bombs were placed in the center of the theater and the stage and aisles were mined.

``The structure of the building and the threat of an explosion gave evidence that no one would survive in the building if the explosion was powerful enough. Such is its architecture,″ Vasilyev said.

Shortly after the storming, officials said some gunmen were believed to have fled into the Russian capital of 9 million people, but Federal Security Service chief Nikolai Patrushev told President Vladimir Putin hours later that none of the captors escaped.

In that meeting, Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov said about 30 accomplices of the gunmen had been arrested in the Moscow area, but details were not immediately available. Moscow Prosecutor Mikhail Avdyukov said later that four suspects were detained in the capital, including two suspected of having been among the hostage-takers.

At least three people were killed by gunmen inside the theater. A young woman was killed in the early hours of the crisis, although it was not clear if she was a hostage or a distraught relative who had rushed into the building. Early Saturday, officials said the captors killed two hostages and wounded two others.

The hostage-takers earlier threatened to begin killing their captives at dawn Saturday. After the two killings, officials reached the captors by phone but then quickly said their negotiations had failed. The raid began.

``They killed two hostages before our eyes,″ Interfax quoted an employee of the news agency who was among the captives, Olga Chernyak, as saying from her hospital bed. ``They shot the man in the eye, there was a lot of blood.″

``I thought they were going to kill us all, but then something happened, I lost consciousness and woke up in the emergency room. It must have been some special gas,″ Chernyak said. She said the attackers had told the hostages they were prepared to die.

Russian television pictures from inside the theater showed the camouflage-clad body of the gunmen’s leader, Movsar Barayev, lying on his back in blood and broken glass, a cognac bottle sitting on the floor near his hand.

In the theater hall, the corpses of several female captors, clad in black robes and head coverings, sprawled in the red plush seats, their heads thrown back or on their folded hands, as if asleep.

Canisters loaded with explosives and metal fragments were attached to the waists of some captors.

Outside city Hospital 13, dozens of hostage relatives gathered waiting for word or the appearance of a beloved face.

Galina Dolotova said her 32-year-old daughter, Olga, appeared to have been one of the hostages least affected by the gas, but even at that ``she was in terrible shape″ when she was brought in.

Officials said none the freed hostages hospitalized around the city would be sent home until at least Sunday.

How the gas was spread through the building was not immediately known, but workers were seen digging around sewers and steam pipes near the theater in the first day of the crisis.

There were no immediate reports of any deaths among the forces that stormed the building, the ITAR-Tass news agency said, citing the so-called ``operative staff″ set up to coordinate Russia’s response to the crisis.

The pre-dawn assault came in the third day of the crisis, after a night of heavy explosions and repeated bursts of gunfire.

Sergei Ignatchenko, spokesman for the Federal Security Service, said the operation to free the hostages began when the Chechen rebels started executing captives.

Earlier, a mediator who met with the gunmen said they promised to release the hostages if Putin declared an end to the war in Chechnya and began withdrawing troops.

The new demands were brought out of the theater just before midnight Friday by Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist respected by Chechens for her war reporting and called in by rebels to mediate.

Asked if the captors seemed to be preparing to start killing the hostages, Politkovskaya said they told her, ``We’re going to wait only a little while.″

Politkovskaya listed rebel demands, and foremost among them were Putin’s declaration of an end to the war and the start of a Russian withdrawal from any region in Chechnya to show good will. If verified, the rebels promised to free the hostages.

She said the captors agreed to her suggestion that verification be done by Lord Judd, a Council of Europe member who has made many trips to investigate the human rights situation in Chechnya.

The demand was the first time the gunmen revealed specific conditions for freeing the hostages, who included Americans, Britons, Dutch, Australians, Canadians, Austrians and Germans.

The Kremlin made only one public counteroffer, when Patrushev said that the hostage-takers’ lives would be guaranteed if they freed their captives.

The gunmen released 19 hostages Friday afternoon, including eight children between 6 and 12 years old. Dressed in winter coats _ and one clutching a teddy bear with aviator goggles, the children appeared healthy as they left the building accompanied by Red Cross workers.

Seven adults were freed earlier Friday, and four citizens of Azerbaijan were released after dark, Russian officials said.

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