Moscow Hostages - UPI News

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    By Anthony Louis
    From the International Desk
    Published 10/23/2002 6:49 PM
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    MOSCOW, Oct. 23 (UPI) -- Russia found itself in the middle of an unprecedented crisis as two ethnic Chechen parliamentarians tried to negotiate with a group of Chechen gunmen holding about 700 people hostage at a Moscow theater Wednesday night, while security forces prepared to storm the building.

    Aslanbek Aslakhanov, a legislator representing Chechnya in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, entered the building in a bid to win the release of hostages, and Ruslan Khasbulatov, the former speaker of the Duma, was reportedly also talking to the terrorists.

    A group numbering between 20 and 50 Chechen gunmen stormed the theater five hours earlier, taking hostage hundreds of people including the actors, audience, and theater staff, and demanding an end to the war in the separatist republic.

    The gunmen -- consisting of men in combat uniforms and women in Islamic-style veils -- were armed with automatic weapons and had explosives strapped to their bodies.

    They identified themselves as "suicide commandos of the 29th division," ready to die for their cause.

    A Chechen rebel Web site identified the leader of the group of terrorists as Movsar Barayev, the nephew of Chechen warlord Arbi Barayev, who was reportedly killed by Russian federal forces in Chechnya last year.

    The rebel Web site also said the female terrorists were mothers who had lost their sons in the continuing war in the separatist republic.

    The Web site said the armed group has a single demand -- "stop the war and a rapid withdrawal of Russian (forces) from Chechnya."

    The Web site said "the building is mined and the mujahedin (fighters) are mined. They are suicide commandos."

    Valery Gribakin, a spokesman for Moscow police, said the special forces believed as many as 40 or 50 armed men and women were involved in the hostage-taking. He said as many as 150 people, including children, women, Muslims and foreigners, particularly nationals of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, had been released or had managed to escape.

    A further 17 people trapped elsewhere in the theater were led out of the building by heavily armed special service officers, and a pregnant woman was allowed by the gunmen to walk out of the building.

    However, the authorities estimate that between 600 and 700 people are still being held hostage more than five hours after the attack took place.

    Members of the audience using cell phones told Moscow radio stations that the gunmen were mining the building and would blow it up if Russian special services tried to storm the building.

    A British Broadcasting Corp. reporter on the scene said Russian special forces on the scene were evacuating high-rises in the vicinity of the theater.

    As security forces began to converge on the theater, the terrorists issued a threat to execute 10 hostages for each rebel wounded by the police, the TVS television network said.

    Two armored cars arrived at the scene and were placed near the entrance to the theater, TVS reported. There were reports that the building may be stormed.

    Security services told United Press International that the first group of special servicemen to arrive on the scene engaged the terrorists in an exchange of gunfire, wounding one of the gunmen. The terrorists also threw a grenade at the special forces. The wounded gunman is being treated by a doctor who is one of the hostages.

    Several foreign nationals, including two German citizens and a French diplomat, were among the hostages who were later allowed to leave, TVS reported. It is not known if any further foreign hostages remain in the building.

    The terrorists announced that certain members of the audience, particularly Muslims and natives of Georgia, which has allowed large groups of Chechen rebels to remain on its territory, were free to leave the theater.

    A woman released by the gunmen said the terrorists were beating some of the hostages.

    "The passages are full of blood," the unidentified woman told the NTV television network. A French diplomat released by the terrorists said the terrorists, particularly the women among the group, were "very aggressive."

    A Kremlin spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, insisted that so far there had been no casualties among the hostages.

    The hostage-taking began at about 9 p.m. local time when armed men arrived in jeeps, entered the theater and disrupted the second act of a performance of a Russian musical hit called "Nord-Ost" by firing automatic weapons.

    According to women who were released because they were married to Georgians or Muslims, and those who had managed to escape, the gunmen warned the audience they would mine the building. The terrorists also demanded that the war in Chechnya be stopped.

    At first, members of the audience were allowed to use their mobile telephones, but later the attackers stopped them.

    Alexander Tsekalo, one of the show's producers, told the Channel One television network that as many as 1,000 people, including the actors and support staff, could be held in the theater, but the official Itar-Tass news agency put the initial figure at 700.

    The network said the gunmen, who were from the North Caucasus, were believed to be Chechens, and had told the audience, "We are engaged in a war."

    The gunmen repeatedly shouted that the war in Chechnya must end.

    Five actors locked up in a room by the gunmen managed to escape from the theater, officials told UPI.

    President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov held emergency meetings with the heads of security agencies as several options were being considered, Interfax said.

    Russian forces continue to wage a war against Islamic separatists in Chechnya, a breakaway republic in the Northern Caucasus, and fears of terrorist acts against civilian targets in Russia have been on the rise in recent months.

    The separatist leaders have called for talks with the Kremlin and a withdrawal of Russian federal forces from Chechnya, but Moscow has ruled out any talks with Chechen rebel leaders.

    Chechen rebel warlords have taken hostages on a number of occasions in a bid to negotiate the withdrawal of federal forces from Chechnya, but Wednesday's events in the center of Moscow are unprecedented in both their boldness and the number of people involved.

    Copyright © 2002 United Press International
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