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Chechen gunmen seize Moscow theatre

Police: No plans to storm building

Unidentified children who were let out of a Moscow theater, look through a bus window
Unidentified children who were let out of a Moscow theater, look through a bus window

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CNN's Ryan Chilcote reports a group of gunmen claiming Chechen sympathy storm a Moscow theater to take the audience hostage
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MOSCOW, Russia (CNN) -- A loud explosion has been heard near the Moscow theatre where an estimated 40 to 50 armed hostage-takers demanding an end to the war in Chechnya have taken up to 700 people hostage.

CNN's Ryan Chilcote -- stationed nearby -- said he could not tell if the explosion came from inside or outside the facility, or if the blast was initiated by the police or the hostage-takers.

Police said the gunmen identified themselves as members of the 29th Division of the Chechen army and said they were prepared to die for their cause.

Valeri Girbakin, a spokesman for Moscow police, said there were women of "non-Slavic" nationalities among the armed contingent, some with explosives strapped to their bodies.

"They are demanding to resolve the situation in the Chechen Republic, specifically pulling out Russian troops," he said.

A pro-rebel Web site said the Russians had seven days to begin the withdrawal or the theatre and hostages would be blown up.

Witnesses said the group stormed the Palace of Culture of the Podshipnikov Zavod at about 9:05 p.m. (1700 GMT) on Wednesday night, fired several shots into the air and refused to let anyone leave the theatre.

A glance at Chechnya and its conflict:
GEOGRAPHY: Oil-rich region in northern Caucasus Mountains of southern Russia, 7,720 square miles, or about size of New Jersey. Moscow considers area vital to maintaining influence in Caucasus region.

POPULATION: Estimated 1.2 million people; several hundred thousand have fled region to escape fighting. Population mostly Muslim with strong religious beliefs. Clan-type groups with influential elders.

HISTORY WITH RUSSIA: Conquered by czarist armies in 1859 after decades of war, but Chechens never accepted Russian rule. During World War II, dictator Josef Stalin ordered Chechens deported en masse to Kazakhstan. Many died; rest returned home in 1950s, after Stalin's death.
CURRENT CONFLICT: Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev declared area's independence in 1991 and proclaimed one-man rule in 1993. Russian troops invaded to oust Dudayev in December 1994, setting off 13-month war that killed up to 30,000. In 1997, Russian soldiers killed Dudayev. Fighting resumed in 1999, after raids by Chechen rebels into neighboring region and bombings that killed some 300 at apartment buildings in Russian cities. Russian leaders blamed bombings on Chechens.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

Police accounts varied widely, detailing anywhere from 400 to 700 hostages. Cell phone calls to Russian radio from inside the theatre said hostages put their number at more than a thousand, although authorities said 711 tickets had been sold for the performance.

Three Germans were among those being held, according to the German Embassy in Moscow. The British Embassy said three Britons were among the hostages. One person from Holland and an Austrian woman are also believed to be being held.

Up to 150 people were reported to have left the building, either by escaping or being released. Girbakin said the hostage-takers early on released children, a woman who was pregnant, citizens of Georgia, foreigners, and Muslims.

Some nine hours after the drama had begun, reporters nearby heard brief gunfire coming from the direction of the theatre. A Reuters correspondent heard two shots. Another journalist reported a burst of automatic fire.

But the source of the shooting was not immediately clear and there were no immediate reports that suggested security forces had begun any operation to storm the building. There was another brief exchange of gunfire about five hours into the standoff, but there were no reports of casualties.

One official had said security forces would not storm the hall unless the rebels began killing hostages: "Storming of the building will not be carried out at the initiative of the Russian side if the terrorists do not undertake actions to kill large numbers of hostages," Gennady Gutkov told NTV television. (History of hijacking)

The hostage-takers' primary demand was an end to the war in Chechnya, officials said. Another demand was for the Russian-installed head of the Chechen government to come to the theatre to talk to them, in which case they promised to release 50 people.

Russian radio broadcast pleas from hostages speaking on mobile phones who said that if police stormed the theater, the gunmen would kill 10 hostages for each hostage-taker killed by police.

Russian interior troops, policemen and other security officials evacuated the block around the theatre and established a perimeter around it. (Mood in Moscow)

The audience was there to see "Nord Ost," a popular production of a classic Russian musical.

No political demands

"At the beginning of the second act, people in camouflage uniforms, they ran up on stage and they started firing from Kalashnikovs," said a woman who escaped from the theatre.

"I didn't hear any political demands," the witness said. "There was a Georgian woman. They let her go. She said there was a lot of blood. It didn't seem like they were shooting people, it seemed like they were beating people. She said there was a lot of blood in the corridors."

The hostage-takers called themselves Chechens, the woman said. "They didn't hide it."

Russian forces left Chechnya in 1996 after a disastrous two-year war, but they returned in 1999 after rebels raided a neighboring region and Russian authorities blamed rebels for a series of bombings in Russia that killed more than 300 people.

Police with dogs entered the complex soon after the standoff began. Russia's Federal Security Service, the equivalent of the former KGB, sent its elite "Alpha" teams to the scene.

A stream of people left the building in single file just after the incident began; some said they had been attending classes in a different part of the building.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had planned to travel to Germany and Portugal Thursday, but officials said he cancelled the trip so he can monitor the situation.

Ahmad Kadirov, head of the governing Chechen administration, called the incident a tragedy and said he was receiving calls from Chechens in Moscow who are scared about possible reprisals against them.

'Terrorist bandits'

"Those are terrorist bandits and I'm sure that one can't resolve problems by starting the war in another area," he said. "How could they get there? That's a question that interests me."

Sergei Lavrov, Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, said the hostage situation was "just the sort of real threat" the world must now deal with.

A policeman stands watch outside the besieged theater.
A policeman stands watch outside the besieged theater.

"It's really frustrating that we have all these incidents all over the world, terrorist activities," Lavrov said at U.N. headquarters. "That's what Russia has been saying all along, that we have real threats to attend to."

In Washington, a State Department official said, "We strongly condemn the taking of innocent hostages. We hope for an early resolution of this crisis and for no loss of life."

"Nord-Ost" is based on Veniamin Kaverin's novel, "Two Captains." The romantic novel recounts the story of two students and their different destinies during Soviet times. According to the theater's Web site, more than 350,000 people have seen the production since it opened.

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