MOSCOW, Oct. 26 (Saturday)--At least 90 hostages were killed when Russian special forces pumped sleeping gas into a Moscow theater and stormed the building early this morning to end a hostage crisis that had gripped Russia and much of the outside world for three days.
Russian authorities recaptured the explosives-rigged building and prevented Chechen militants from blowing it up during a dramatic pre-dawn raid just a few miles from the Kremlin. Russian troops reported killing 50 of the militants, including their leader and 18 female suicide bombers, some of whom had already been knocked unconscious by the gas pumped through the ventilation system.
Nearly 700 hostages survived, were evacuated from the building and taken to hospitals around Moscow, many of them suffering from injuries and the after-effects of the gas. Authorities kept most of the survivors locked away in the hospitals without letting their relatives in to see them.
Twelve hours after the raid, Russian authorities had still not informed the U.S. Embassy about the condition of three Americans who had been among the hostages. A U.S. green card holder was reported alive and in a hospital. Russian officials said no foreigners were among the dead.
Officials defended their decision to storm the building, saying they acted only after the militants--who demanded an end to the war in Chechnya--had shot and killed two hostages overnight.
"We tried to fulfill all the terrorists' demands. The price was just too high," said Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Vasiliyev. "Terrorists constantly demonstrated their explosives. The building's construction is such that everyone inside would be killed if it were to collapse."
Appearing shaken after the bloody end to the 56-hour ordeal, Vasiliyev acknowledged that the operation "didn't go easy. The actions of the operation headquarters will be evaluated by the prosecutors. The decision was the right one and it taken at the right time. In case of failure we could have lost up to a thousand people."
At least some of the surviving hostages agreed with that assessment. "We were waiting to die," Olga Chernyak, a reporter from Interfax news service who was in the audience when the Chechen militants seized the theater Wednesday night, said in a report by her agency. "We realized that they would not release us alive. We did not believe they would let us go even if all their demands were met and troops are withdrawn from Chechnya."
Chernyak confirmed official accounts that the militants killed two hostages during the night, a man and a woman. "The man was shot in the eye and there was a lot of blood," she said. "I was sitting in the middle of the stalls and everything was happening near me. I thought then that we would all be killed. Something happened later and I fainted."
Witnesses described the dramatic scene that then followed as Russia's highly-trained Alpha Team blitzed into the building, guns blazing. "There was the smell of sweat, horror, tragedy and death in the hall," Vadim Mikhailov, leader of the team of "diggers" that helped the special forces enter the building through the sewage system. "While I was carrying a young girl out, she woke up, hugged me and started kissing me. There are a lot of emotions."
U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow congratulated the Russians for limiting the loss of life. Asked the operation could be considered a success, he said, "Well, I think that when one considers that there were 700 hostages, all of whom could have been killed, then we are very relieved that the vast majority seem to have survived."
Hospital officials said that at least nine of the 90 reported civilian casualties had no bullet wounds and likely died from heart problems, stress or other ailments. The government denied that any of them died as a result of the gas, which they did not identify. Some doctors were furious with officials for not telling them what the gas was, making it more difficult to treat the victims.
Russian forces suffered just two casualties in the raid, neither of them fatal, according to a former rescue department official.
President Vladimir Putin visited a hospital later to appear with some of the survivors.
Officials gave conflicting accounts as to whether they captured or killed all the hostage-takers. Shortly after the raid this morning, they said at the scene that several had escaped, but later in the day a Putin aide told the president that all had been accounted for. Putin was also told that 30 accomplices had been arrested in Moscow.
Among the dead was the leader of the suicide battalion, Movsar Barayev, whose bloodied body was later seen by journalists sprawled on the floor of the theater. Next to his hand was a bottle of cognac standing straight up as if someone had placed it there after his death. Russian officials have claimed the militants were drinking throughout the crisis, but a British journalist who visited the theater at the time disputed that.
Journalists touring the theater shortly after the end of the shootout found it a shambles – bodies, unexploded ordnance and trash strewn everywhere, the floors stained with blood. One female militant with explosives strapped to her belly was sitting in a theater audience seat leaning forward on her hands as if sleeping; another sitting in a nearby seat had her head fallen back, her mouth slightly open, as if she too had dozed off.
The standoff began shortly after 9 p.m. Wednesday, as dozens of heavily armed and masked Chechen guerrillas swept into the House of Culture for the State Ball-Bearing Factory in southeast Moscow just as the second act of the musical "Nord-Ost" ("North-East") was beginning. Firing their weapons into the air, they took more than 700 cast, orchestra and audience members hostage and began wiring the building with powerful explosives.
While Putin made clear he would not give in to their demand for an end to the Chechen war, which has raged since 1999 and cost tens of thousands of civilian lives, an odd parade of negotiators began making their way in and out of the building. Politicians, journalists, singers, a filmmaker – all tried in vain to settle the standoff peacefully.
The final armed confrontation began around 3:30 a.m. today, when a series of loud explosions echoed through the area. Russian officials said the blasts marked the beginning of the Chechens carrying through on their threat to kill the hostages.
According to the official Russian account, the Chechens killed two hostages and wounded two others. Soon after, panicked hostages attempted to break out of the building as a group, but only two women made it, officials said. At that point, the Russian special forces charged into the theater.
"The terrorists have started killing the hostages," said Sergei Ignachenko, a spokesman for the domestic Federal Security Service, said shortly after 5:30 a.m.
By 6:30, a third round of shooting erupted and two bedraggled and terrified women fled the theater, rushing into the arms of Russian soldiers who ushered them to safety. At about 7, scores of ambulances and rescue vehicles arrived at the scene and more hostages started to emerge. Minutes later, the emergency vehicles raced away, sirens blaring in the first of many trips over the next few hours. Sappers rushed into the building in a frantic effort to defuse the bombs.
The conclusion of the crisis came hours after a rebel threat Friday to begin shooting their captives by dawn today. The threat had followed a Kremlin offer to spare the rebels' lives in exchange for the safe return of the captives.
A journalist intermediary had conveyed the rebels' pledge to hold off harming the hostages if Putin would declare an end to the war in Chechnya and begin moving troops out of the breakaway republic as a gesture of goodwill.
A Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, had spent much of the day Friday in talks with the gunmen, and she and other mediators reported increasingly ominous threats "to take the most serious measures" and begin shooting.
The rebels had released 19 hostages on Friday, including children as young as 6. One young girl clutched a teddy bear as she was released. But the militants refused to free dozens of other children and foreigners. Conditions continued to deteriorate for the desperate theatergoers, who were reduced to eating emergency stocks of chocolate bars and using the orchestra pit as a toilet.
Throughout the day and into the night Friday, wave after wave of negotiators entered the building to plead with the Chechens. Most came out empty-handed. The mediators included former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov; Yosif Kobzon, a popular singer turned legislator; and Aslanbek Aslakhanov, the member of parliament for Chechnya.
Politkovskaya, a journalist who has defied the Russian government to produce reports on the Chechen war, returned from a U.S. awards ceremony to participate in the talks, personally hauling in water for the hostages.
But rather than reporting progress, some of the mediators suggested violence was at hand. "They reject any negotiations," said Sergei Govorukhin, a film director who spent 20 minutes in the theater building. He said the Chechens had refused to allow remaining children to leave and quoted them as saying "all the rest who come to them will be shot dead, whether they are [politicians] or journalists. It's a stalemate."
The rebels told Politkovskaya, "We're going to wait only a little while." Emerging at one point Friday, she added, "I was stunned to see the hostages' mood. They were preparing to die." She said the rebels' new offer to release the hostages was conditional not only on Putin beginning to withdraw troops from Chechnya but also on international verification of the move.
Foreign diplomats also attempted to negotiate the release of the estimated 75 foreign captives, but they, too, failed. Vershbow, the American ambassador, came and left twice within four hours, buoyed by false reports that the Chechens were prepared to release the foreigners. Instead, U.S. Embassy officials said, the hostage-takers told a Red Cross official that they flatly refused to free the foreigners separately.
Among the three Americans who were held was Sandy Alan Booker, 49, of Oklahoma City, his mother said in an interview. Jean Booker said she did not know her son was in Russia until Thursday afternoon, when she received a call from the State Department.
"I had heard a tidbit of news on television about some theater there in Moscow and so many hundreds were taken hostage," she said. "I wondered then where he was, but I never imagined he could really be caught up in all of this."
The two other Americans were identified in media reports as Natalya Aleshnya and Irina Shearel, but U.S. officials provided no information about them or the one Russian with a U.S. green card among the hostages.
The hostage-takers, who had pronounced themselves ready to die, were led by Barayev, the nephew of a Chechen warlord who was killed last year. On Friday, NTV television broadcast footage of a man it identified as Barayev, wearing a black knit cap and a camouflage uniform, inside the theater. Russian officials charged that it was not Barayev but Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov who was behind the attack.
The Russian security services released a video of Maskhadov, apparently made this summer, in which he proclaimed a new "offensive" strategy on the part of the rebels. "I am certain that in the final stage there will be a still more unique action, similar to the jihad, that will liberate our land from the Russian aggressors," Maskhadov was shown as saying. His spokesman denied the video was related to the hostage-taking.
Correspondent Sharon LaFraniere and staff writer Ariana Eunjung Cha contributed to this report.