- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 27, 2002

MOSCOW A shocked, wary Russia counted its rising toll of dead and steeled itself for new terrorist blows yesterday in its never-ending Chechen war, after commandos striking behind clouds of disabling gas brought a sudden bloody end to a hostage nightmare.
The special-forces assault on a Moscow theater after a three-day siege left Russians with feelings of both pain and pride: More than 90 hostages were dead, but 750 others were rescued and dozens of their Chechen captors killed.
Russia "cannot be forced to its knees," President Vladimir Putin declared afterward on national television.
But the Russian leader acknowledged the heavy cost to victims' families: "We could not save everyone. Forgive us."
The key targets for the unidentified gas were almost 20 suicide attackers, Chechen women, who sat among the hostages wrapped in explosives, officials said. Had they detonated the charges, the toll of innocents would have been much higher, Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Vasilyev said.
President Bush condemned the "terrorists" who took the theatergoers hostage. "This is a reminder of the risk to the free world that terrorists present," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said as Mr. Bush flew yesterday to a Pacific Rim conference in Mexico.
Besides 50 Chechen assailants reported killed at the theater some with an apparent execution-style bullet to the head officials said three other gunmen were captured, and authorities searched this nervous city for accomplices and gunmen who may have escaped.
Three persons were known to have been killed before the special-forces assault began: a young woman whose body was brought out Thursday and the two killed yesterday morning. No foreign hostages were among the dead, officials and diplomats said. In Washington, the State Department said no Americans were killed.
The precision terror operation that began Wednesday night in the Russians' own capital had defied the Kremlin's repeated contention that the nationalist rebels in predominantly Muslim Chechnya were on the verge of final defeat.
Most surviving hostages, staggering or unconscious from the gas, were being kept from family members who gathered in freezing rain outside a hospital, and their conditions were not reported.
But the death toll rose as the day stretched on.
Police officials said hours after the raid that 67 hostages were killed, but the Health Ministry later said the number had risen above 90.
How they died was not immediately clarified.
Mr. Vasilyev, the deputy interior minister, said none of the 67 initial victims died from gas poisoning. He said nine died because of heart problems, shock or lack of medicine. At the same time, doctors at City Hospital No. 13, where more than 320 freed hostages were taken, said none of those hospitalized had gunshot wounds, Moscow's TVS television reported.
The end came 58 hours after the gunmen stormed into the crowded theater during a performance of the popular musical "Nord-Ost" (North-East), vowing to die for Chechnya's independence and threatening to kill their captives unless Moscow withdrew its troops from the war-ravaged region.
The special-forces' assault began in icy rain when the gunmen began executing hostages before dawn yesterday, Mr. Vasilyev said.
"About 5:15 a.m. there was shooting," he told reporters at the scene, three miles southeast of the Kremlin. "There was a real threat. Therefore the operation was undertaken."
Olga Chernyak, an Interfax news agency reporter caught in the hostage audience, said the gunmen killed a woman and a man "before our eyes."
The incapacitating agent apparently seeped into the theater through the ventilation system, TVS said, and then soldiers from the Alpha anti-terrorist squad burst in. Soon the hostages were brought out, some in the arms of soldiers, most loaded unconscious onto city buses.
Government film of the aftermath showed dead female hostage-takers sitting in red plush theater seats, in black robes and veils, heads thrown back or bent over, indicating they may have been shot while unconscious. Precisely placed bullet holes could be seen in their heads. One had a gas mask on her face.
The TV footage showed the camouflage-clad body of the assailants' leader, Movsar Barayev, lying on his back amid blood and broken glass.
A cognac bottle could be seen near Barayev's lifeless hand, and syringes were scattered in the litter surrounding the corpses of other gunmen, their faces masked by blood. Mr. Vasilyev said puncture marks, possibly from drug injections, were found on some gunmen's bodies.
Because only one Alpha trooper was reported wounded, some analysts believed the gas, which officials would not identify, had so incapacitated or disoriented the gunmen that they couldn't pull the triggers on their guns.
An emergency worker who entered the hall behind the commandos said everyone he saw was slumped in the seats, unconscious.
"First we thought that they were dead, then we checked them and found that most were alive," said Vadim Mikhailov. "Inside there was a sweltering heat and the odor of human excrement. People were in shock, starved and incapacitated."
On Friday, reports said the hostage-takers had agreed to release their 71 foreign captives. That didn't happen, but 19 persons were freed, including eight children.
On Friday afternoon, a theater worker telephoned out word that the Chechens had vowed to begin "executions" at dawn yesterday. Later Friday, mediator Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist respected by the Chechen separatists, said the gunmen demanded that Mr. Putin declare an end to the war in their region and begin withdrawing troops, in exchange for the hostages' lives.
But all that authorities ever guaranteed during the three-day ordeal, as far as known, was that the hostage-takers' lives would be spared if they released their captives.

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