Moscow, 24 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Chechen rebels holding hundreds of hostages in a Moscow theater are demanding a Russian withdrawal from Chechnya within seven days. At least 40 well-armed rebels took over the theater during a performance last night, taking some 700 people hostage. In a statement on a Chechen separatist website, kavkaz.org, the hostage takers said Russian authorities have seven days to begin to withdraw troops from the republic.
The website said the attackers will blow up the building with the hostages inside if the demands are not met or if security forces try to storm the building.
Hostages who spoke to Russian media by telephone said explosives have been laid throughout the theater, and they pleaded with authorities not to try to enter the building.
The foreign minister of the separatist Chechen leadership, Ilyas Akhmadov, condemned the hostage taking. "Both President [Aslan] Maskhadov and our leadership have always condemned and do condemn terrorist acts and any actions that endanger the safety and lives of civilians. What is happening in Moscow is without a doubt the direct consequence of this cruel war unleashed by the Kremlin leadership, and I think that any victims will be on the conscience of the Russian government," Akhmadov said.
Meanwhile, foreign authorities were trying to secure the release of their own nationals. Austrian Ambassador Franz Cede said the hostage takers had indicated that they will release their Western captives, reportedly including British, Austrian, German, Dutch, and U.S. citizens.
As many as 150 people have already been released, including many children.
Russian lawmaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, an ethnic Chechen who tried to start negotiations with the attackers, said authorities were prepared to offer the rebels safe passage to another country.
In Washington, White House spokesman Sean McCormack said the U.S. government has condemned the hostage taking and is standing ready to help Russia end the crisis in any appropriate way.
McCormack said the U.S. government and the American people stand with the people of Russia at what he called "this difficult moment."
The U.S. spokesman said there are no causes or national aspirations that justify the taking of innocent hostages. He said the United States condemns terrorism in all its forms.
The spokesman added he did not know if any U.S. citizens are among the hostages.
Germany's Foreign Ministry has said three Germans are among those being held, while Britain has said three or more Britons had been in the audience.