A few hundred people gathered near a Moscow theater to commemorate victims of a deadly hostage crisis in 2002, with some still-grieving relatives bitterly criticizing the state over a botched rescue operation.
Raw emotions surfaced at the October 26 ceremony outside the Dubrovka Theater, where some 40 gunmen took hundreds of audience members, actors, and staff hostage 15 years ago and demanded the withdrawal of federal troops from Russia's Chechnya region.
The hostage crisis began on October 23, 2002, when the Chechen militants burst into the theater during the performance of a popular musical. It ended 57 hours later, when security forces stormed the building after pumping in toxic gas that neutralized the attackers but led to the deaths of many hostages.
The government says 130 died, while an advocacy group for victims and relatives says the number is 174. Many choked on their own vomit, swallowed their tongues, or suffocated in cramped buses after security forces stormed the theater and dragged unconscious hostages out.
"Our state failed to save our loved ones. It is a monster, a cannibal that devoured the lives of our relatives for the sake of political ambitions," Dmitry Milovidov, whose 14-year-old daughter died in the tragedy, said at the ceremony.
The Russian government has refused to reveal what gas was used in the operation, and relatives of victims accuse the government of seeking to cover up its role in the deaths of their family members.
Svetlana Gubareva of Kazakhstan survived the ordeal but lost her 13-year-old daughter Sasha and her fiance, U.S. citizen Sandy Booker.
"The authorities do not want to take responsibility for the mess they organized instead of a rescue operation," Gubareva told RFE/RL at the commemoration. "It cannot be called a rescue operation, it was a real mess."
The truth about the incident "remains a secret in Russia," she said.
Gubareva said that her fiance was killed by the gas and that her daughter was found dead under a pile of unconscious bodies in a bus after it arrived at a hospital.
Prominent Russian singer and lawmaker Iosif Kobzon, who entered the theater and persuaded the hostage-takers to release a woman with three children, attended the ceremony.
He was accompanied by the woman and two children she had after the tragedy.
Kobzon told RFE/RL that he felt ashamed that no city officials, government ministers, or fellow lawmakers came to commemorate the victims.
Seven people were convicted as accomplices of the hostage-takers from 2003 to March 2017 and sentenced to prison terms of up to 22 years.