Russian Forces Storm Theater, End Chechen Siege
Russian officials said the assault was ordered after the rebels began executing the captives, as they had threatened to do unless steps were taken to pull the Russian military out of the breakaway southern republic.
Security chief Nikolai Patrushev told Russian news agencies that his forces had killed 34 of the Muslim fighters and taken the rest captive.
“None of them managed to get away,” he said.
Survivors reported that militants and many hostages were disabled by gas pumped into the hall ahead of the assault. They launched the strike reportedly after Chechens killed two of the hostages.
The end of the siege did not come without a cost to those held captive though. Russian officials confirmed Saturday morning that 90 hostages died. It was unclear how many had been killed by the captors and how many may have died in the crossfire during the assault.
Among the Chechen rebels killed in the attack was their commander Movsar Barayev. Authorities said some 16 of the militants were in custody after the assault.
Officials said the swift military action prevented a much larger loss of life and perhaps the detonation of massive explosives in the theater.
“We succeeded in preventing mass deaths and the collapse of the building which we had been threatened with,” Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Vasilyev told reporters.
Hours after the assault, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited survivors in a Moscow hospital.
Putin, who rose to power three years ago pledging to clamp down on the decade-old rebellion on Russia’s southern fringe and boost public security, had said the main task was to secure the hostages’ safe release.
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.
Russia accuses the Arab fighters in Chechnya 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 situation was the most violent attack within Russia since the first Chechen war that lasted from 1994 to 1996, when rebels killed some 120 people after seizing 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.