Thursday, October 24, 2002 FoxNews.com
MOSCOWÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¡ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¹ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¡Chechen rebels holding hundreds of hostages in a Moscow theater shot and killed one captive and said they were ready to die for their cause, warning Thursday that thousands more of their comrades were "keen on dying."
A news agency reported, meanwhile, that the rebels had fired two rocket-propelled grenade rounds out of the theater Thursday night. It was not immediately clear where the grenades landed or if there were injuries.
In a broadcast monitored in Cairo, Egypt, the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite TV channel broadcast a videotaped statement by one of the estimated 40 hostage-takers.
"I swear by God we are more keen on dying than you are keen on living," a black-clad male hostage-taker said in the broadcast. "Each one of us is willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of God and the independence of Chechnya."
"Even if we are killed, thousands of brothers and sisters will come after us, ready to sacrifice themselves," declared a female hostage-taker, covered in a black robe except for her eyes.
Al-Jazeera did not explain how it obtained the pictures, and it was not clear if it had been taken in the theater or before the raid began. Police and soldiers have pushed journalists hundreds of yards back from the theater.
Al-Jazeera is known for having broadcast statements by Usama bin Laden and other members of his Al Qaeda terrorist network. Russian and U.S. officials also have said some Al Qaeda fighters may be in Chechnya. Chechens also were among fighters ousted from Afghanistan late last year when the ruling Taliban were overthrown.
The rebels, both men and women, stormed the theater at 9:05 p.m. Wednesday as an audience of about 700 people watched a popular musical.
A blanket-shrouded body, identified only as a woman, was wheeled out of the theater Thursday afternoon, apparently killed in the early hours of the hostage drama. Sergei Ignachenko, a spokesman for the Federal Security Service, said the woman appeared to be in her 20s and had been shot in the chest and her fingers were broken.
More than 100 women and children had been released since the gunmen in camouflage stormed into the theater, Moscow police spokesman Valery Gribakin said. The freed hostages were sobbing and shaking as they emerged from the theater which holds 1,163 people.
And even as the Chechen rebels were threatening to kill their hostages, intermediaries entered the building earlier Thursday bearing a white flag and won the release of five more captives.
Sharpshooters perched on rooftops around the theater less than three miles from the Kremlin.
Distraught relatives tried to reach family members inside the theater. Alina Vlasova, 24, said her sister Marina was so upset when she called from inside the theater that she could barely speak. "They are standing over us with automatic rifles and are getting angrier," Alina said her sister told her.
A pro-rebel Web site, www.kavkaz.org
, said Thursday that Russia had seven days to begin withdrawing from Chechnya or the theater would be blown up.
The Web site said the attackers were led by Movsar Barayev, the nephew of warlord Arbi Barayev, who reportedly died last year. The site said some of the women hostage-takers were the widows of Chechen rebels killed fighting the Russians.
President Vladimir Putin canceled his trip this week to the APEC summit in Mexico as the secessionist war that has bedeviled Russia for a decade came terrifyingly home to the nation's capital.
Meeting with security officials Thursday, Putin said "freeing the hostages with the maximum assurance of their safety," was the main goal. He said the raid was planned "in one of the foreign terrorist centers" but did not name it.
The dramatic siege was a bitter blow for Putin, who repeatedly has said Russia has the situation in Chechnya, a mainly Muslim republic in southern Russia, under control. While Putin's popularity remains high, opinion polls show public support for the war dropping in recent months.
In Washington, White House spokesman Sean McCormack said in a statement that "the American government and the American people stand with the people of Russia at this difficult moment. There are no causes or national aspirations that justify the taking of innocent hostages."
U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow said three Americans were among the hostages, but he did not identify them. Citizens of the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Austria, Belarus, Bulgaria, Australia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Germany also were confirmed to be among the hostages.
Vershbow said that one of the U.S. citizens had called the embassy on a cell phone, and another one, a woman, called her relatives in the United States and "we heard through them of her presence among the hostages."
"We don't have reliable information as to their condition," Vershbow told reporters.
He said that U.S. security services were working with their Russian counterparts to help free the hostages. He refused to give details of the cooperation.
A senior liberal lawmaker met with the Chechens on Thursday and said they were prepared to allow foreign doctors into the theater to treat some of the hostages who were in bad condition.
Irina Khakamada, a leader of the Union of Right Forces liberal party, also was to meet with Kremlin officials to deliver the hostage-takers' demands, which she did not detail.
Iosif Kobzon, a lawmaker and a popular singer who has performed songs lauding Chechnya, went inside the theater together with Khakamada and said that one of the attackers told him the Chechens were ready to release 50 hostages in exchange for the Moscow-appointed head of Chechnya's administration.
The armed men and women, wearing camouflage clothing, arrived in jeeps just as the second act of the popular musical Nord-Ost was about to begin. The musical ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¹ the title means "North-East" in German ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¹ is based on Veniamin Kaverin's romantic novel Two Captains, which recounts the story of two students and their different destinies during the Soviet times.
Yuli Rybakov, a liberal lawmaker, said the hostage-takers had automatic weapons, grenades, belts with explosives attached, mines and canisters with gasoline with them. One hostage told Echo of Moscow the hostage-takers attached explosives to themselves, theater chairs, support columns and walls, and along aisles.
Hostage Maria Shkolnikova, a physician, was shown on television reading a handwritten statement from the rebels demanding an end to the Chechen war. She also spoke with Echo of Moscow radio by cell phone and said hostage-takers wanted to talk with representatives of Doctors Without Borders. She said the Chechen said they might release the foreign hostages after those talks.
"People are close to a nervous breakdown," said Shkolnikova, adding that the hostages were being fed water and chocolate.
Several hostages, speaking by cell phone to various Russian television stations and news agencies, pleaded with Russian authorities not to use force. Previous attempts by Russian authorities to resolve similar large-scale hostage incidents involving Chechens ended in bloodshed.
In 1995, Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev and his fighters briefly took more than 1,000 hostages in southern Russia and then escaped back into Chechnya. More than 100 civilians died. In a January 1996 raid on the southern Russian town of Kizlyar, rebels took hundreds of hostages at a local hospital. Some 78 people were killed.
In an apparent attempt to dampen the anger of ethnic Russians, members of the Chechen community in Moscow volunteered to replace the hostages, especially children, police spokesman Gribakin said.
Russian forces left Chechnya in 1996 after a disastrous two-year war but returned in 1999 after rebels raided a neighboring region and Russian authorities blamed rebels for a series of apartment bombings in Russia that killed more than 300 people.