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Russia: Dozens Dead As Troops Storm Theater And End Crisis

By Margot Buff

Moscow, 26 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russian special forces stormed a Moscow theater early this morning, ending a three-day siege by Chechen militants who were holding hundreds of hostages. Dozens of hostages and hostage takers are reported dead.

Russian forces used gas to incapacitate the hostage takers before launching the raid at around 5 a.m. local time. Footage broadcast by state-controlled ORT television shows the theater strewn with the bodies of the militants, some of them with their heads on their arms as if asleep.

Exact casualty figures are still not known, but Russian Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Vasilev told journalists today that at least 67 hostages were killed in the seige and the raid that followed.

"We have managed to save more than 750 people. They are in various Moscow hospitals. At the same time, we mourn with the relatives of those who have lost [family members]. Of all the hostages, according to the information which I have now, according to verified data, we have lost 67 people."

Nikolai Patrushev, the chief of Russia's Federal Security Service, said earlier at least 33 of the Chechen militants had been killed in the raid.

"Thirty-three or 34 gunmen were liquidated. Several of the gunmen have been detained, and I also want to stress that the operation does not end at this point. It will continue. We will work according to the information we have collected."

There were reports that some militants managed to escape during the raid. At least two others have been detained and are being interrogated.

Vasilev said the dead include the Chechen commander who led the attack, Movsar Baraev: "Those who were killed are unidentified. These terrorists, among them women, who were strapped with explosives, they are not alive anymore. Baraev is dead, that's for sure. More than 30 people -- I would say 36 [hostage takers were killed]."

Reports say many hostages were incapacitated by the gas used in the raids. Medical workers said some of the hostages were unconscious or unable to walk when brought to hospitals for treatment.

A doctor at Moscow's Sklifosovsky hospital, Vladimir Ryabinin, said earlier that 42 survivors of the siege are being treated for gas poisoning. He described their condition as "poor" and said that all were sickened by an unknown gas.

Officials said two hostages were shot dead earlier today. Those killings appear to have triggered the special forces raid. The hostage takers had earlier threatened to begin executing captives at dawn if their demands were not met.

Vasilev praised the security operation as averting a massacre. Many of the hostage takers had strapped explosives to their bodies and threatened to blow up the theater.

"We are deeply convinced that the decision we took was correct and timely. According to our information, if the operation had failed, we could have lost nearly 1,000 or more people -- I mean the hostages and the armed forces which had to resolve this problem. I am authorized to tell you that special means were used [in the operation]. It helped us, and you saw it on the TV screens, to neutralize, among the others, the kamikaze women who were packed with explosives and had their fingers on the detonators."

The militants held an estimated 700 hostages since seizing the theater on 23 October in the middle of a performance. The rebels were demanding that Russian forces end the war in the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

In talks with negotiators last night, the militants said they would release their hostages if Russian President Vladimir Putin declared an end to the war in Chechnya and withdrew troops from at least one part of the republic as a show of good will.