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Russia: Nord-Ost Hostage Crisis Brings Chechen War To Moscow's Doorstep (Part 1)

  • Sophie Lambroschini

One year ago, a group of Chechen fighters seized Moscow's Dubrovka theater in the middle of a musical performance, taking more than 700 actors and audience members hostage. Their demand -- an end to Russia's devastating war in the breakaway republic, then entering its fourth year. The three-day standoff ended when Russian special forces stormed the building in a controversial rescue operation that left at least 129 hostages dead. A year later, many Russians are still reeling from the Nord-Ost crisis, which brought a once vague and distant war crashing at Moscow's doorstep. In a two-part series, RFE/RL looks back at the three-day standoff and the legacy of grief and anger it has left behind.

Moscow, 22 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- "We managed to do the near impossible: save the lives of hundreds, hundreds of people. We proved it is impossible to bring Russia to its knees," Russian President Vladimir Putin said.

On the evening of 23 October 2002, a group of trucks and minivans drove up along the Dubrovka theater center on a nondescript street in southeast Moscow. From them emerged roughly 50 Chechen militants, male and female, some strapped with explosives and all heavily armed. They burst through the center's double doors and stormed the theater's main hall, where hundreds of Muscovites had just settled in for the second act of "Nord-Ost," a nostalgic musical about the country's Soviet past.

Taking more than 700 actors and audience members hostage, the militants threatened to blow up the theater if the Kremlin failed to meet their demand - the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya. They say they would shoot hostages at regular intervals until a decision was made.

For Vladimir Putin, an ordinary autumn evening suddenly turned into the worst crisis of his presidency. The distant war in Chechnya, a foggy conflict for many Russians, had suddenly become real. Muscovites were astonished that their seemingly rock-solid city had been so easily penetrated. Some likened it to the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. The Russian leadership, whose power was in part built upon the illusion of a successful Chechen campaign, could neither give in to the militants' demands nor risk the lives of their hostages without suffering a massive political setback.

With no easy answers, the three-day standoff began. Family members clustered outside under an ice-cold rain, waiting anxiously for news. Volunteer peace brokers secured the release of several hostages, mainly very young children and people suffering from illness. A handful of hostages held outside the main hall managed to escape through a window. But overall, there was little information about conditions inside the theater. What news there was - often delivered by mobile phone - only served to heighten the tension.

"The situation is alarming. Everything is mined and people are worried. Everything in the building is mined," one female hostage reported.

On the third morning of the siege, Russian special forces launched the assault that would prove to be the most central controversy of the Nord-Ost hostage crisis. According to official sources, the Russian forces sprayed an anesthetic gas through the theater's ventilation system in order to incapacitate the hostage takers. The special forces then stormed the building, killing most of the terrorists at point-blank range and deactivating explosives. Once the building was secure, they began carrying out the still-unconscious hostages and helping them to receive medical care.

Quick and clean? It seemed so at first. Putin praised the efficiency of the operation, and many Russians in turn praised Putin for refusing to back down.

But then hostages started to die. Families were blocked from entering hospitals. Television footage showed hostages being dragged out of the theater, feet trailing in the mud, and thrown into buses. It was then that many Russians began to question the motives behind the high-profile rescue operation.

Journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a Chechnya expert, was one of the negotiators to enter the theater during the siege. "I have the feeling that the operation was staged to destroy the terrorists as a show of strength and [to prove] that we would not give way - but not to free the hostages. Those are very different things," she said.

In the end, hundreds of hostages were saved. But at least 129 were dead - most victims of the narcotic gas used to knock out the hostage takers. Only two deaths were confirmed to be the results of gunfire. Since then, journalists and other observers have raised pointed questions about the hostage taking and the high human toll of the rescue operation.

Many wonder how the militants had managed to enter Moscow, horde weapons, and then travel through the city. They also question why the hostage takers - particularly the women, who appeared to be strapped with explosives - failed to make good on their threat to blow up the building once the rescue operation began. Testimony by a number of hostages appeared to cast doubt on the official claim that the terrorists were incapacitated by the gas before they had a chance to react.

"Everybody saw the gas and everybody realized what was happening. [The hostage takers] had enough time to blow up everything, but they purposely didn't do it. It is very strange. I don't know why [they didn't do it]," one female hostage said.

The government has also had to fend off criticism about the slipshod way the hostages were treated once they were removed from the building. Many were left lying on icy sidewalks for up to an hour. Most died several hours after they had been rescued. Relatives of the Nord-Ost victims have repeatedly demanded to know why hospitals and medical staff weren't alerted before the operation or given a proper antidote.

Even after the rescue, little information was available about the identity of the gas or its qualities. Heath Minister Yurii Shevchenko said at the time the substance was based on derivatives of fentanyl, a powerful but legal analgesic, and was perfectly harmless. He said other factors were to blame for the hostage deaths. "In the [Nord-Ost] case, the anesthetic was used on people who were in a very critical state as a result of various aggressive factors such as hypoxia, severe lack of oxygen, severe dehydration, lack of movement over almost 60 hours, hunger, the worsening of chronic diseases, and severe psychogenic stress," Shevchenko said.

It is a theory the Kremlin sticks to even a year later. Putin apologized for the loss of life, but was quick to capitalize on what was officially portrayed as a successful operation. The hostage crisis gave the Russian president an opportunity to portray the Chechen conflict as part of the global war on terror. That position received an added boost when the U.S. State Department added to its official list of terrorists a number of Chechen rebels - including field commander Shamil Basaev, the alleged mastermind of the Nord-Ost hostage taking.

But while few see the Nord-Ost rescue as a Machiavellian master plan aimed at glorifying Russia's fight against terror, many say the government showed little respect for human life throughout the three-day siege.

Yabloko party leader Grigorii Yavlinskii was another negotiator to enter the Dubrovka theater during the standoff. A year later, he said that many questions remain unanswered - and the issues of Chechnya and terrorism are no closer to being resolved, as evidenced by this summer's suicide blasts at a Moscow rock concert and a third attempted attack at a cafe in the city center.

"We did not get complete answers about why this terrorist act happened, we did not get exhaustive explanation as to why there had to be victims. We don't know if any administrative investigations are under way against those authorities guilty of criminal negligence for allowing this terrorist act to happen. Terrorism has become even more aggressive since," Yavlinskii said.

There is some hope that the questions that continue to surround the Nord-Ost crisis may eventually be answered. Opposition parliamentary factions are lobbying for a bill that would grant the State Duma the right to open enquiries with wide investigative powers on issues like Nord-Ost. The bill has made it through two preliminary readings, despite opposition from pro-Kremlin factions.