MOSCOW — About 50 armed Chechen rebels stormed a crowded theater in a daring assault, took hundreds of theatergoers hostage and threatened early Thursday to shoot their captives and blow up the building if Russian security forces attacked.
Police and security forces surrounded the building amid the crackle of sporadic automatic weapons fire and were on high alert throughout the Russian capital after the brazen attack, which Russian military experts was meticulously planned,
Moscow police spokesman Valery Gribakin said about 100 women and children had been let out of the theater, and news reports quoted some of them as saying there were pools of blood in the theater halls. The freed hostages were distraught, sobbing and shaking as they emerged from the building where they had been watching a popular musical show.
“The terrorists are demanding one thing — the end to the war in Chechnya,” Gribakin said.
Police towed cars parked near the theater and evacuated patients from a nearby hospital.
Those released did not see any dead bodies, but said the hostage-takers had beaten some in the audience. Two pregnant women were later released.
Inside the theater, frantic hostages used cell phones to call families, television and radio stations. Outside, worried Muscovites waited in the dark and in a freezing rain for news of their relatives.
The dramatic hostage taking was a sharp rebuke for President Vladimir Putin, who consistently claims that Russia has the situation in Chechnya — a mainly Muslim republic in southern Russia — under control. Putin canceled a trip to Germany and then Portugal on Thursday, his press spokesman, Alexei Gromov, told Interfax. It was unclear what he planned to do about attending the weekend APEC summit in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where he was to meet with President Bush.
Russian news reports said the rebels offered to release 50 more hostages if Akhmad Kadyrov, the head of Chechnya’s Moscow-appointed administration, came to the theater.
News reports said the armed men and women were laying land mines inside the theater and had explosives strapped to their bodies which they threatened to blow up if Russian security forces stormed the building. Gribakin, the police spokesman, said there were about 600 people inside the theater when it was seized. Russian news reports said three Germans and three British citizens were inside.
A woman who made her way out of the theater told a television interviewer the men wore camouflage as they took the stage, fired into the air and said: “Don’t you understand what’s going on? We are Chechens.”