- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 26, 2002

MOSCOW Russian special forces early today stormed the theater where Chechen rebels were holding hundreds of hostages, and officials said they were in control of the building.

About 20 bodies were seen being removed from the theater and the lead hostage-taker was reportedly killed.

The hostages were being let out of the building, said Pavel Kudryavtsev, an official at the command center handling the crisis. Buses were also seen heading to the theater.

The bodies were brought out shortly after an Associated Press photographer had seen about a hundred Russian special forces troops and firefighters entering the building. Wounded hostages were seen being removed from the Moscow theater where hundreds are being held, Russian news agencies reported.

The Interfax news agency also said several people, apparently hostage-takers, were being brought out from the building with their hands bound.

Movsar Barayev a young warlord who inherited a gang of rebels from his uncle, the infamous Arbi Barayev had led the group of as many as 50 heavily armed men and women into the theater Wednesday evening.

Mr. Kudryavtsev said he was killed in the rescue raid.

The developments came just before sunrise today the deadline by when the gunmen threatened to begin killing their captives unless Russia declared an end to the war in Chechnya and began withdrawing troops.

The crisis began Wednesday night when about 50 Chechen rebels, including women who said they were war widows, stormed the theater. From the start, the rebels have said they were ready to die and take the hostages with them. Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday promised the hostage-takers would not be killed if they freed their captives.

Late yesterday, a mediator who met with the gunmen said they promised to release the hostages if Mr. 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 last night by Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist who is respected by Chechens for her reporting on the war and was called in by the rebels to mediate.

Asked if the captors seemed to be preparing to start killing the hostages, Miss Politkovskaya said they told her: "We're going to wait only a little while."

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

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

The new demand was the first time that the gunmen revealed specific conditions for freeing the hostages. Earlier they demanded flatly that Russia end the war in Chechnya.

Earlier yesterday, the heavily armed rebels, some with explosives strapped to their bodies, freed 19 hostages including eight children.

After a meeting with Mr. Putin, Federal Security Service chief Nikolai Patrushev promised the hostage-takers would not be killed if they freed their captives.

From the start, the rebels had said they were ready to die and take the hostages with them. Mr. Putin said "the preservation of the lives of the people who remain in the theater building" was his overriding concern and the Kremlin was "open for any contacts."

Azerbaijan television broadcast an audiotape yesterday of what it said was an interview with a rebel.

"We know [the Russians] will storm the building all the same. We are waiting for it and we are ready for it. If the storming takes place, we'll explode the hall and nothing will be left of it," the hostage-taker, who wasn't named, told the private Azerbaijani News Service.

"We must fulfill the will of Allah. This plan has been worked out long before. We haven't yet begun our activities," the hostage-taker said in heavily accented Russian.

Several influential figures had been sent late yesterday into the building including former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov; Aslanbek Aslakhanov, who represents Chechnya in the Russian parliament and is despised by rebels as a tool of the Kremlin; and Ruslan Aushev, former president of neighboring Ingushetia.

Mr. Primakov, a Mideast specialist, later left without comment and went to meet Mr. Putin. Mr. Aushev emerged and said there was a risk the rebels might take "extreme measures" and would only negotiate with a presidential representative. It was not clear if Mr. Aslakhanov remained behind.

Aside from Mr. Patrushev's brief statement, the Kremlin had kept its strategy under wraps. In the past, Mr. Putin has rejected negotiations with the rebels unless the talks focused on their disarmament and abandonment of the drive for Chechen independence.

The U.S. Embassy's security chief the top U.S. security officer posted in Moscow had joined Russians in a 24-hour command center near the Moscow theater. The move implemented a promise President Bush made by telephone to Mr. Putin offering support and assistance.

Although having released 19 hostages yesterday including four from mainly Muslim Azerbaijan and raising hopes for a bloodless outcome, the rebels failed to deliver on an earlier promise to free the 75 foreigners including three Americans, Britons, Dutch, Australians, Canadians, Austrians and Germans. The number of hostages was estimated at about 800.

Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Vasilyev said the Kremlin had failed to reach Aslan Maskhadov, a rebel leader who was president of Chechnya for the three years between the first and current Russian military occupations of the region.

"The leader of the terrorist act is Maskhadov. It was organized with his participation," Mr. Vasilyev said in a television interview. Other state-run networks carried videotape apparently designed to link Mr. Maskhadov and the hostage crisis.

The tapes showed him saying rebels had shifted from guerrilla warfare to an "offensive" strategy. "I am certain that in the final stage we will carry out a still more unique action, like the jihad, and with this operation we will liberate our land from the Russian aggressors."

Hostages gave varying accounts of conditions in the theater.

"We are safe and sound, it's warm and we have water and there's nothing else we need in a situation like this," captive Anna Adrianova told a radio interviewer early yesterday, but she later said conditions had deteriorated. Another hostage said the situation was tense and the captives had not received food or water and were using the orchestra pit as a toilet.

Yelena Malyonkina, a spokeswoman for the "Nord-Ost" musical that was being staged in the theater, said hostage production official Anatoly Glazychev told her a bomb was placed in the center of the theater and all the aisles and stage were mined.

About 80 demonstrators outside the theater carried banners and chanted anti-war slogans. Several said they were responding to requests from relatives who were among the hostages.

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