- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 24, 2002

MOSCOW About 50 armed Chechen rebels stormed a crowded theater during a musical show last night and took hundreds of theater-goers hostage in a well-planned attack. Police and security forces surrounded the building amid sporadic gunfire.
One of the detainees told Moscow Echo Radio that more than 1,000 hostages are being held by the rebels, Agence France-Presse reported.
Moscow police spokesman Valery Gribakin said that about 100 women and children had been let out of the theater, and news reports quoted some of them as saying that there were pools of blood in the halls.
Those released did not see any dead bodies but said that the attackers had beaten some in the audience. Two pregnant women were released later.
"The terrorists are demanding one thing the end to the war in Chechnya," Mr. Gribakin said.
Russian news reports said that the rebels offered to release 50 more hostages if Akhmad Kadyrov, the head of Chechnya's Moscow-appointed administration, came to the theater.
Earlier reports said that the armed men and women were laying land mines inside the theater and were threatening to blow up explosives strapped to their bodies if Russian security forces stormed the building. The police spokesman said that there were about 600 people inside the theater at the time.
A woman who made her way out of the theater told a television interviewer that the male attackers, who were in camouflage, took the stage, fired into the air and said: "Don't you understand what's going on? We are Chechens."
News reports said that the hostage takers arrived in jeeplike vehicles just as the second act of the play was about to begin. When police and security forces surrounded the theater, the attackers opened fire and threw a grenade.
Russia is involved in a bloody war in Chechnya, seeking to put down a decade-old separatist insurrection in the oil-rich region. News reports cited a Chechen rebel Web site as saying that the group was led by Movsar Barayev, the nephew of warlord Arbi Barayev, who is reported to have been killed last year. The Web site said that some of the female hostage takers were widows of Chechen rebels killed in the war.
"[In] scope it can only be compared to the tragedy in New York. The situation is extreme now," liberal Russian lawmaker Boris Nemtsov said in a television interview. "We must start a dialogue."
Senior Russian officials had no immediate comment on the hostage taking that, in an unprecedented move, was being broadcast live on radio and television from outside the theater.
The news reports said that Aslanbek Aslakhanov, a member of the national parliament from Chechnya, was inside the theater and negotiating, as was Ruslan Khasbulatov, the former speaker of the Russian parliament, who is an ethnic Chechen. Mr. Khasbulatov was a leader of the deadly uprising at the Russian parliament in 1993.
The Chechens are a small group of Muslims in north Caucasus Mountains in southern Russia. They are considered among the fiercest national groups in the country and battled the Russian czars in the 19th century before being defeated.
They were deported en masse by former communist leader Josef Stalin to Kazakhstan in 1944 for purportedly betraying the Soviet Union and supporting Adolf Hitler. They were allowed to return home in 1957.
The Chechens declared independence from the Soviet Union shortly before it collapsed in 1991, but Russian forces invaded the region to try to put down the rebellion.
Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev helped force Russia to the negotiating table by leading a bloody raid on the town of Budyonnovsk in a neighboring region in June 1995. His fighters briefly took more than 1,000 people hostage before escaping back into Chechnya. More than 100 civilians died.
Russian forces left Chechnya in 1996 after the disastrous two-year war but returned in 1999 after the rebels raided a neighboring region. Moscow authorities blamed the insurrectionists for a series of apartment bombings in Russia that killed more than 300 people.
In a January 1996 raid on the southern Russian town of Kizlyar, rebels took hundreds of hostages at a local hospital. About 80 people were killed.
Last night, an Associated Press reporter saw two ambulances, but it was not clear whether they were connected to events in the theater.
Police units and an Alpha special forces unit went to the theater and sealed the area in freezing, wet weather. The Federal Security Service, the successor to the Soviet KGB, and the Interior Ministry put plan "Thunderstorm" into effect, which required all officers to report to their units.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was immediately told of the incident, Interfax reported. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov went to the theater.
The theater, a former Soviet-era House of Culture that belonged to a ball-bearing factory, was staging a performance of the musical "Nord-Ost" (North-East in German), a popular production in Moscow.
The theater is located in the southeastern section of the capital in a working- class neighborhood. The musical is based on Veniamin Kaverin's "Two Captains," a romantic novel that recounts the story of two students and their different destinies during Soviet times.
The theater's producer, Alexander Tsekalo, said on television that the theater could hold 1,163 persons.

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