MARGARET WARNER: Just after 9:00 last night, heavily armed Chechen guerrillas stormed this Moscow theater, taking some 700 playgoers hostage. As Russian special forces surrounded the building, the rebels released some of their captives-- mostly Muslims, women and children. The freed hostages conveyed the rebels' demand to police that Russian troops leave Chechnya. One of the children released described the terrifying scene inside.
CHILD (Translated): At the beginning of the second act, a man with a machine gun, in camouflage and a black mask, came on. He fired into the ceiling and asked the actors to sit down in the front rows and be quiet. Then some men and women came in with pistols and machine guns. Some of them were carrying bombs and said they'd blow up the whole theater in ten minutes if they were not obeyed.
MARGARET WARNER: As the night wore on, gunfire could be heard inside. And this morning, the body of a young woman was wheeled out on a stretcher. Also today, the al-Jazeera Arabic Television Network broadcast a videotaped statement from the hostage-takers. One vowed: "Each one of us is willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of God and the independence of Chechnya."
Another, sitting with the Koran beside him, said: "We came to the Russian capital to stop the war or gain martyrdom, and our demands are stopping the war and the withdrawal of Russian troops." Russian President Vladimir Putin was quick to link the hostage- taking to international terrorism.
PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russia (Translated): The first information we had from the representatives of the terrorists who took the hostages in Moscow last night came from abroad. This reconfirms that this terrorist outrage can be considered one of the biggest to be carried out on a national as well as international scale, and that it was planned in foreign terrorist centers.
MARGARET WARNER: The predominantly Muslim republic of Chechnya has been fighting for its independence from Russia on and off for nearly a decade. A 1996 truce broke down in 1999, and Russian forces resumed their campaign against the Chechens. Today, the Russian government appeared to be at least talking to the rebels who've released more than 100 hostages so far.
SERGEI IGNATCHENKO, Federal Security Service Spokesman (Translated): At the moment, contact has been made with the terrorists. One of the terrorists who introduced himself as Abu Said made a statement. The main demand of the terrorists is the cessation of war in Chechnya.
MARGARET WARNER: Some members of the Russian parliament also came to the theater to negotiate, and Red Cross workers ferried in food, medicine and supplies to those inside.
MARGARET WARNER: Is this a home-grown rebellion, or international terrorism? For that, we turn to Yo'av Karny, journalist and author of "Highlanders," a book about the Caucasus. Dimitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center and author of several books on Russia.Born in Russia, he's now a U.S. citizen. And Paul Joyal, a former Senate Intelligence Committee staffer, now president of Intercon International, a consulting firm focusing on Russia and the former Soviet republics. Welcome, gentleman
Paul Joyal, this is an incredibly brazen act. Who are the Chechen rebels behind this?
PAUL JOYAL: Well, the group that has identified themselves is a Chechen fighter out of the Argon [ph] area. He's about 26 years old. He's a young man who's grown up knowing only war. And clearly he has come under the influence not only of the fighting and the experience but also the Islamic creed.
MARGARET WARNER: So you think there is a connection to somehow the international terrorist network of al-Qaida?
PAUL JOYAL: Well, I would not necessarily make that parallel but clearly he is motivated by issues related to the Chechen conflict as well as the fundamental tenants which he has internalized on Islamic life.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Karny how do you see it?
YO'AV KARNY: I certainly concur on that. I think it is highly self-serving of Vladimir Putin to ascribe anything that goes wrong in Chechnya to a global Islamic network. Of course, since1996 and since the end of the first Chechen war the end of it, the Chechen independence movement has followed increasingly under the sway of overseas Islamic missionaries, armed missionaries who have managed to indoctrinate people considerably with notions of global cosmic struggle of Islam against Europeanists, against the West. Russia may not be exactly our idea of West but in their mind Russia is a part of the West. I think it's a combination clearly.
MARGARET WARNER: The Russian and U.S. Government both, Mr. Joyal, have been very concerned about Chechen fighters who are actually in Georgia and have been -- they say al-Qaida fighters are there, too. Is that -- explain to us, is that the same group essentially of Chechens who are part of the official resistance in Chechnya, or are these different groups?
PAUL JOYAL: Well, there are many different warlords that sometimes cooperate and sometimes do not. Goliath who has obviously been in Pankisi for a period of time....
MARGARET WARNER: That's the area of Georgia where these rebels...
PAUL JOYAL: In the Pankisi Valley, correct, has been forced to leave by negotiations with the Georgian government. As we speak there are Georgian special operation forces now once again in Pankisi directing they're attention at 60 identified fighters, some of which are... have been linked with Arab countries for an additional operation. But I see no connection between anyone from Goliath's group or those who remain with the present fighter who has been identified in the Moscow hostage situation.
MARGARET WARNER: So you're saying that the fighter who's head of this Moscow operation is, what, with the sort of official Chechen resistance if there is such a thing?
PAUL JOYAL: Well Movsar Barayev is the nephew of an individual who held the position in the first Chechen regime. His uncle was a part of the interior ministry and that individual who is now dead was close with Muskarev [ph].
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Karny, what are we to make of the fact though that these fighters apparently before they went and stormed this theater made a video for the al Jazeera Network, the signs were in Arabic even though I understand in Chechnya they don't speak Arabic and they don't use the Arabic alphabet...
YO'AV KARNY: They barely speak Chechen.
MARGARET WARNER: What do we make of this?
YO'AV KARNY: Seven years ago we were sitting in this studio discussing the case of a city in southern Russia where the Chechens had taken over a hospital with hundreds of hostages and ended up in a terrible tragedy, 200 people dying in the course of a botched rescue attempt, and at that time, I opined that the Chechens were taking a leaf out of the Palestinian book. Clearly now they're taking a leaf out of the al-Qaida book.
They are children of war. These are young people ignorant of the outside world, insular, impressionable, pathetically foolish, who have allowed themselves to be taken over by foreign missionaries who couldn't care less about the rights of Chechnya, self-determination, independence. To them Chechnya should become a launching pad for destabilization of the caucuses, preferably Russia, the Middle East, the West at large.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Dimitri Simes, what do you expect Russian President Putin to do about this?
DIMITRI SIMES: He doesn't have many choices. He has about 700 Russian citizens and foreigners being taken hostage by terrorists. There is no question in my mind it's a terrorist operation.
Whatever maybe the grievances of the people, whatever may be the legitimate concerns they clearly act as terrorists. It is a well planned terrorist operation. We are not talking about a tiny band... we are talking about a group which clearly has considerable international support and financial support and good planning and I think that Putin will try to out wait these people.
MARGARET WARNER: Out wait them?
DIMITRI SIMES: Yes but the initiative is in the hands of hostage takers and my concern is that some of the hostages may try to escape. That may become a trigger for the real disaster. As you know, President Bush today became first foreign leader who called President Putin and had expressed complete solidarity. There are four American citizens inside the theater and the American embassy is helping the Russian security officers -- are cooperating with the Russian anti-terrorist Russian task force.
MARGARET WARNER: Let's go back to the problem facing President Putin. The reports which there are even negotiations on have been very conflicting. Do you think President Putin should negotiate. Do you think he will? Can he afford to?
DIMITRI SIMES: I think he should negotiate about ending this situation as peacefully as possible. The same way the Montgomery County Task Force was willing to negotiate with the snipers but certainly this is not the time to negotiate with hostage takers about Chechen independence. As a matter of fact, they did damage to the cause of Chechen independence and they have discredited legitimate Chechen rebel fighters.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, there is a Web site, Mr. Karny, that purports to be allied with these hostage takers. We weren't able to get on it but the wires report they had a specific demand and said either Russian troops start leaving Chechnya in seven days or we'll blow up the theater.
Do you think, and I know this is hard to know because you don't really know these people but do you think that these hostage takers are dead serious about that. Do you think they're on a suicide mission. Do you think they think the Russian government will cave? I mean how far do you think they'll push this?
YO'AV KARNY: Well, I think Chechnya is on a suicide mission. Sadly, tragically the lionization of death has become such a major trait of Chechen independence struggle -- look at the wording - the astonishing wording, we are here to die not to live. It's nothing to ask we die here or there so long as we take along with us the infidels. And I bet you these people are totally ignorant of Islam or theology, it has nothing to do with that; they are just reciting the old tune of al-Qaida they have got recently on their short waves.
But generally speaking Russia has never missed an opportunity to repeat its previous mistake. My mistake done in the course of the last 200 years was certain to be repeated ten times over. Here are people who went into Afghanistan in the 1980s ignoring the past. They have done twice in Chechnya. The question is is Putin going to take a license to redo everything that he has done with Chechnya all over again.
MARGARET WARNER: Before we get to that point, what's your feeling, Mr. Joyal, about how serious a... not how serious a challenge this is to Putin, but how serious these rebels are about pushing it to the ultimate?
PAUL JOYAL: They're dead serious. These terrorists have no intention to negotiate whatsoever with the Russian government.
MARGARET WARNER: So in other words, so you don't think this is a ploy to try to get the Russian government back to the negotiating table over Chechnya?
PAUL JOYAL: Well, I'm not saying that. I'm saying this group here is dead set on having no negotiations themselves. The only opportunity is to take some bold moves with the help of the international community, maybe even led by elements of the international community, to try to get some political dialogue going with high officials related to the former Chechen government and to try to get engagement, political engagement as many Russian politicians, Mr. Primakov, the former speaker -- the time has come to try find a political solution.
Maybe this could provide an opportunity but President Putin is in a extremely difficult position. If he acts strongly and keeps with his image, he risks blood shed. If he doesn't act he'll be accused of weakness.
DIMITRI SIMES: Would be President Bush be justified in negotiating with bin Laden after September 11? There are times for everything and I think that Putin -- his reputation would be destroyed if he would try to accommodate these people. This is a tight rope for him. On the one hand he can't attack without further provocation because there would be massive blood shed but he if he surrenders to these people, his reputation will be destroyed and not useful to the United States as a political ally.
MARGARET WARNER: Sounds like bleak prospects. Well, thank you, all three, very much.