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Russia: Murky Information Complicates Hostage-Crisis Conclusions

  • Gregory Feifer

From the very first, Moscow residents have heard differing accounts of what actually happened during last month's hostage crisis in a local theater. The government has maintained a general policy of secrecy. The local media's coverage, meanwhile, has tended to reflect the degree of loyalty each outlet shows the Kremlin. Given the confusion, even such crucial points as the intent of the hostage takers remain unclear.

Moscow, 12 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- It has been nearly three weeks since a group of around 50 Chechen rebels stormed a Moscow theater and took 750 people hostage, and many details remain unclear.

Among the questions not fully answered is why the rebels -- some of whom held detonators in their hands -- did not set off their explosives as Russian special forces pumped gas into the theater ahead of a predawn rescue operation. The hostages themselves said they were aware a raid was being staged in the first minutes of the operation before they lost consciousness from the gas.

After the raid, Russia television reported that the operation had caught the rebels off guard at the theater's bar. The channel said the rebels had grown increasingly nervous and were drinking alcohol. Video footage showed rebel leader Movsar Baraev's corpse with a bottle of cognac dubiously placed by his hand.

Hostages said the rebel group's leaders had indeed been caught off guard, not because of alcohol but because the leaders were trying to splice together video footage of the operation using the theater's equipment.

Another important point concerns special-forces commanders' claims they decided to raid the theater only after rebels began to execute hostages.

Hostages have testified there were no executions and that shots were only fired at one man who lunged out of his seat and stepped over the backs of other seats.

Speaking on state-controlled Russia television from her hospital bed in the hours after the raid, former hostage Olga Chernyak, a reporter for the Interfax news agency, indicated that executions had indeed begun, and she praised the special-forces operation as the only alternative. It later appeared, however, that her words had been taken out of context.

Even easily verifiable facts are in dispute. In the hours after the operation, police first said they killed all the rebels -- most of them while unconscious -- until admitting that around 10 got away. Police then said three had been arrested, until announcing last week that all were dead. The final number of dead rebels was given as 41.

The number of hostage casualties and causes of death also differed. Police at first said none of the hostages died from the effects of the gas and then said that none had died from bullet wounds.

Effects of the gas were later said to have been responsible for all but two of the 118 deaths initially reported, but officials refused to identify the gas until four days after the raid. Eventually, officials released a list of 128 dead, five of whom are said to have died from weapons fire.

Hostage relatives want to know why it took authorities four days to name the lethal sedative gas, especially since some doctors treating the victims said they could have saved more lives if they had known what to expect. Meanwhile, some Western doctors dispute the government's claim that the gas was solely a derivative of the opiate fentanyl.

Other questions remain, including why the hostage takers, unconscious from the gas, were executed immediately when they could have been apprehended. Their arrests could have provided valuable information about the staging of the raid.

Adding to the confusion was the obvious bias of the media, with commentary variously reflecting a publication's or station's ownership affiliation. State-controlled channels praised the skills of officials and special-operations troops. Independent stations, in general, were more critical.

Human rights defender Lyudmilla Alekseeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, said false reports laid bare the authorities' habit of lying to the public. She cited initial reports that hostage takers were releasing Muslims and Georgians. Those reports later turned out to be false. "What information did we have from the very first moment when the hostages were seized? What was the first information we had? That they released Muslims and Georgians. It wasn't the media that conveyed that information about the hostages. Official press services said that. Then it turned out not to be true. But it wasn't denied," Alekseeva said.

Dmitrii Furman, a researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Europe Institute, said obscuring the truth is characteristic for authorities in Russia and naturally creates the conditions for different interpretations to circulate. "Everything remains unclear. It remains unclear how [the hostage takers] infiltrated Moscow. It remains unclear why no one was punished for such an obvious act. It's unclear why [the hostage takers] were all killed. In short, everything's unclear," Furman said.

Oleg Panfilov, director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, said the government has a lot of recent experience in disseminating misinformation. His organization puts at 80 percent the amount of false information spread through state-run news agencies such as ITAR-TASS and RIA-Novosti during the first war in Chechnya from 1994 to 1996.

Panfilov said controlling information during the hostage crisis was much harder because of the large number of journalists, including foreigners, reporting the story and the accessibility of many hostages and other witnesses -- hence, official calls from the Media Ministry for control over the media and new measures passed by parliament last week for new limits on reporting on terrorism. "The authorities most likely became very scared that journalists could publish information they uncovered independently and that contradicts official versions of this event," Panfilov said.

The government has tried to gloss over any inconsistencies by emphasizing it is fighting terrorism. It has even offered what it says is proof that separatist Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov ordered the hostage operation.

During the crisis, Russian television aired video showing Maskhadov threatening terrorist acts, but it was unclear when the footage was filmed.

Maskhadov has denied taking part both during and after the crisis, including in a videotaped statement obtained by RFE/RL. He has also denounced terrorism in general. Rebel warlord Shamil Basaev, who claimed to have masterminded the operation, has also said Maskhadov did not take part.

The Kremlin held a news conference at which it released what it said were intercepted mobile-telephone conversations between Baraev and rebels outside Russia. Some of these intercepts appeared to implicate Maskhadov.

But Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembskii admitted that the rebels knew their calls were likely being intercepted and may have purposefully released misinformation. Furthermore, there are questions about the tapes' authenticity.

One firsthand witness, journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who has extensively covered the war in Chechnya and with whom the hostage takers asked to speak, disputes what is perhaps the most important question over the hostage crisis. She said that, contrary to the government's position that the hostage takers were not willing to negotiate, she believes there was a chance talks could have worked.

Politkovskaya told reporters days after the crisis that she believes the government was not interested in the lives of the hostages. "I have the feeling that an operation was staged to destroy terrorists as a show of strength and that we would not give way, but not to free the hostages. Those are very different things," Politkovskaya said.

Politkovskaya said the rebels described to her a four-point plan envisioning the possibility of freeing the hostages and then taking a last stand against an inevitable storming by Russian forces before blowing up the theater.

Furman said whether or not the hostage takers were planning to release the hostages is a matter of crucial significance. "I have the feeling that they didn't have a plan to kill the hostages -- that's what I think. They were certain that some kind of negotiations, some kind of concessions, would begin. But I may be mistaken. I think establishing the truth here is very difficult -- more than that, it's almost impossible," Politkovskaya said.

Furman added that, given the continuing lack of clarity over the hostage takers' intentions, Western leaders' strong support for Putin's stepped-up war in Chechnya may represent a compromise. In return, Russia acquiesces to a tough new U.S.-drafted United Nations Security Council resolution on Iraq.

He said if the West is accepting Russia's claims for their cooperation on Iraq, that would be better than if the West really believes Moscow's allegation that Chechen rebels are simply terrorists to be considered in the same category as members of Al-Qaeda.

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