Prague, 24 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A flurry of negotiations appear to be under way in Moscow between the Russian authorities and a group of 40 to 50 Chechen militants who stormed a theater in the Russian capital last night and took as many as 700 people hostage.
At latest report, eight State Duma legislators, including well-known liberal deputies Irina Khakamada and Boris Nemtsov, were allowed into the theater building for talks with the militants.
Earlier in the day, the hostage takers released a British man in his 50s as well as a Russian woman with three children after the intervention of another legislator, famous singer Iosif Kobzon.
Nevertheless, little progress appears to have been made in the standoff so far. The Federal Security Service (FSB) says the militants continue to insist that Moscow withdraw its forces from Chechnya. Their only other concrete demand in talks with the authorities today was for a foreign doctor to be brought to the theater to care for an undetermined number of sick hostages. The militants stressed they did not want any Russian medical personnel to be sent.
Russian President Vladimir Putin -- who canceled visits to Europe as well as a planned weekend trip to attend the APEC summit in Mexico in order to monitor the situation -- said ensuring the safety of the hostages remains of paramount importance. "The main goal of our law-enforcement agencies and special services in planning and conducting any operations should be freeing the hostages while ensuring their maximum safety," Putin said.
In a statement on a Chechen separatist website, kavkaz.org, the hostage takers said Russian authorities have seven days to begin withdrawing troops from the breakaway republic, where Russia has been engaged in a bloody war for the past three years.
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.
Putin, in an apparent reference to the website message, said the hostage takers were part of a global terrorist network being run from outside Russia. "The first information issued by the representatives of the terrorists holding hostages in Moscow came from outside the country. This just shows that this terrorist act, which is comparable to not only the worst terrorist attack in our country but also abroad, was planned in foreign terrorist centers," Putin said.
Foreign governments across the world, including most European countries and the United States, have condemned the hostage takers. Reports say the captives include up to seven Germans, four Americans, four Canadians, two Danes, two Swiss, three French, two Austrians, two Yugoslavs, one Bulgarian, and about a dozen citizens of the former Soviet republics.
Despite the appearance of the Internet message, Ilyas Akhmadov, foreign minister of the separatist Chechen leadership, distanced himself from the attack. Akhmadov, speaking to RFE/RL in an overnight interview from Washington, said the Chechen separatist leadership condemns the hostage taking, although he laid the ultimate responsibility for the act at the Kremlin's doorstep. "Both [Chechen separatist] 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.
The lead hostage taker has been identified as Movsar Baraev. He is apparently the nephew of former Chechen warlord Arbi Baraev, who was accused of directing several hostage-taking operations in Chechnya before being killed in a Russian ambush last year. Arbi Baraev was known for his radical Wahabbi sympathies. Until yesterday, his nephew Movsar was largely unknown.
Hostages who spoke to media by telephone confirmed the militants' claims that explosives have been laid throughout the theater. They pleaded with authorities not to try to enter the building. One woman being held hostage who spoke to RFE/RL described the situation by saying: "The situation is alarming. Everything is mined and people are worried. Everything in the building is mined."
The woman, with the voice of a male hostage taker prompting her in the background, paraphrased the captors' principal demands: "I can only say that we are waiting for the government to demonstrate concern about their own people, so that responsible people come to conduct talks to free the people now in the building. Everything must be done for this now. This is the most important thing. They've taken many people -- 1,000 people. There is one demand: Stop the war in Chechnya. This demand has been transmitted and the main thing is for it to reach the appropriate people and the nation."
In connection with the Moscow hostage taking, ITAR-TASS reports that higher security measures have been put in place at highly frequented places throughout the country.
(RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service contributed to this report.)