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Chechen Rebels Hold Hundreds Hostage in Russia

BY Admin  October 24, 2002 at 1:35 PM EDT

The separatists reportedly threatened to shoot hostages or blow up the building if Russia did not agree to pull its troops out of the breakaway republic of Chechnya, press reports said.

Hostage Maria Shkolnikova told Reuters via cell phone that explosives had been laid in passageways, on seats and were attached to hostages themselves.

The Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television network broadcast what it said was a videotaped statement from one of the hostage-takers, who said, “I swear by God we are more keen on dying than you are keen on living… Each one of us is willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of God and the independence of Chechnya.”

The rebels freed some 150 hostages soon after taking over the theater, including up to 20 children and a number of Muslims. Three people from the Red Cross entered the theater Thursday along with a Russian parliament member. Soon afterward, a British man left the theater, followed by a woman and three children.

The Chechen gunmen killed one of the hostages on Wednesday, a woman who had tried to escape as the separatists took over. Sergei Ignachenko, a spokesman for the Federal Security Service, told the Associated Press the woman looked to be in her 20s and had been shot in the chest.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Russian police and soldiers have surrounded the building, but have not yet made any move against the hostage-takers, the Washington Post reported.

President Vladimir Putin, who rose to power on pledges three years ago to clamp down on the decade-old rebellion on Russia’s southern fringe and boost public security, said the main task was to secure the hostages’ safe release.

“The main aim of our security bodies and special services … must remain aimed at securing the release of the hostages while ensuring their maximum safety,” Putin said in televised remarks.

The Russian president has taken an uncompromising stand on the conflict in largely Muslim Chechnya on Russia’s southern fringes, where the Kremlin has twice launched military strikes to crush separatists.

Western accusations of human rights abuses against civilians in the devastated province have died down since Putin backed the U.S.-led global war on terrorism.

Russia has drawn attention to Arab fighters in Chechnya and has accused the rebels of links to radical Islamist groups like the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida, the group blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S. The Moscow hostage-taking incident is the most audacious Chechen attack since the first Chechen war that lasted from 1994 to 1996.

In 1995, some 120 people were killed after rebels seized a hospital in the southern Russian town of Budennovsk. In 1996 a Chechen group took more than 2,000 people hostage in a raid on the nearby Dagestani town of Kizlyar.