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Russia: Chechen Militants Release More Children, But Standoff Continues

Prague, 25 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Chechen militants who have been holding an estimated 700 people hostage in a Moscow theater since the evening of 23 October released eight more children today.

The children, aged between 6 and 12, were released without any conditions, and they appeared healthy. An estimated 25 other children remain captive inside the building. Earlier reports that the militants were preparing to release up to 75 foreign hostages have so far not materialized.

In a new development, the Russian Media Ministry issued a statement to the media today, saying journalists must not give a voice to the hostage takers by allowing them to broadcast their views on the air. The ministry warned that spreading information "justifying" terrorism or extremism is against Russian law and that violations could lead to the shutdown of media outlets.

The statement comes after journalists from the NTV television network interviewed lead hostage taker Movsar Baraev inside the theater last night. NTV was prevented from airing the audio portion of that interview by Russian authorities.

According to NTV journalists, Baraev denied allegations by Russian President Vladimir Putin that the hostage takers are being directed from abroad. Baraev said he and his fellow militants had spent a long time planning the theater takeover, visiting the site on several occasions prior to the hostage taking. He added that before the attack, they made a videotape explaining the reasons for their actions, which was given to Al-Jazeera television through an intermediary. Al-Jazeera aired the tape overnight.

The hostage takers' single demand remains the same: the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya.

A spokesman for Russia's Federal Security Service, or FSB, Sergei Ignatchenko, said this afternoon that the hostage takers are now threatening to begin shooting hostages if their demands are not met. FSB head Nikolai Patrushev told the hostage takers today that their lives will be guaranteed if they release all the captives. It was not immediately clear if the militants' threat is connected to Patrushev's statement.

The atmosphere inside the theater remains tense, according to accounts by visiting doctors and the hostages themselves. Food has largely run out. In some cases, the hostage takers are making captives use their mobile phones to call friends and relatives and demand that they stage demonstrations in support of the Chechen separatist cause. In other cases, members of the media are calling the hostages and speaking to them.

RFE/RL spoke this morning with one female hostage, Yelena, by mobile phone from inside the theater. "We would like people to come and ask for a decision to be made on withdrawing troops from the territory of the Chechen Republic so that we can be released. We would like our loved ones and everyone who isn't indifferent to come today. We want them to come today. It is eight o'clock in the morning now, and we'd like people to come by nine o'clock or 10 o'clock, because we get the feeling that we don't have much time left," Yelena said.

In response to the appeals, some 70 relatives of those captive inside the theater staged a demonstration in Moscow demanding that Russia withdraw its forces from Chechnya.

Protesters chanted, "Stop the war in Chechnya!"

Akhmed Zakaev, the special representative of Aslan Maskhadov, the president of the Chechen separatist leadership, reiterated to RFE/RL in an interview from Copenhagen today that Maskhadov condemns the theater seizure and disassociates himself from the actions of the militants.

But Zakaev said that, in his opinion, the hostage takers' motives have to be understood in the proper context. "The fact that hostages are being held in the theater building today is an act of desperation by Chechens who took this extreme step because they didn't see any way out of the current situation [in Chechnya]. These are people who have lost their relatives, their friends, people who, today, personally, have nothing to lose. But, at the same time, we believe that these people and the people they are holding are all hostages of Russia's policy aimed against nationalities in the Caucasus," Zakaev said.

Russian Deputy Interior Minister Vasilii Vasiliev rejected Zakaev's denial of responsibility, saying the videotaped statements made by the hostage takers prior to their attack prove that Maskhadov was behind the operation. On the videotape, aired by the Qatar-based satellite television channel Al-Jazeera, the militants say they are "acting under orders from the Chechen republic's military commander."

But observers have noted that Maskhadov has long distanced himself from the Baraev family. Before he was killed in June last year in a Russian ambush, warlord Arbi Baraev -- Movsar Baraev's uncle -- was demoted by Maskhadov from the rank of general to simple soldier.

On the international diplomatic front, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told the BBC today that London "is keen to support Moscow in its battle with Chechen rebels at a time when it is seeking Russian support in the United Nations for a tough new mandate on Iraq weapons inspections."

The United States has also expressed its support for the Kremlin as it tries to resolve the hostage crisis, but Washington has not publicly linked support on the Chechen issue in return for Moscow's support on Iraq.

(RFE/RL's Russian and North Caucasus services contributed to this report.)