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Bloody End to Moscow Siege

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Bloody end to Moscow siege

NBC, MSNBC AND NEWS SERVICES

MOSCOW, Oct. 26 — Russian special forces seized control of the Moscow theater where Chechen rebel gunmen were holding hundreds of hostages Saturday morning, killing their leader and freeing hundreds of hostages, Russian emergency officials said. But more than 90 hostages died during the ordeal, health officials said. Fifty insurgents were killed, including 18 women, the Interior Ministry said.

DEPUTY INTERIOR Minister Vladimir Vasilyev confirmed that a special gas was used to knock out everyone in the theater and allow the rescue operation to proceed. Many freed hostages who were taken to hospitals in city buses were unconscious or having clear difficulty walking.

Vasilyev said that 67 hostages had died but did not specify how they had been killed. Health oficials later said the hostage death toll had risen to at least 90.

Vasilyev said that security forces were engaged in an intense search of buildings around the theater amid reports that some of the hostage-takers may have sought refuge there. But MSNBC.com’s Preston Mendenhall, reporting from the scene, said security around the theater has been relaxed significantly since the end of the siege.

Russian authorities said they had not excluded the possibility that some rebels were hiding among the freed hostages, Mendenhall reported.

None of the foreign hostages, including three Americans, was killed during the crisis, which began Wednesday night during a performance of the popular musical “Nord-Ost,” Russian news agencies reported, citing diplomats at foreign missions in Moscow.

“We did have to open fire [inside the theater] and I saw at least 10 bodies of terrorists who were killed,” a member of the Interior Ministry’s special police told MSNBC.com. He did not give his name.

LEAD REBEL KILLED IN RAID

Movsar Barayev, a young warlord who inherited a gang of rebels from his uncle, the infamous Arbi Barayev, was among those killed when Russian troops seized the building, officials said.

Movsar Barayev, from video recorded early Friday by Russian broadcaster NTV.

Movsar Barayev had led the group of as many as 50 heavily armed men and women into the theater Wednesday evening.

Russian television footage from inside the theater showed the camouflage-clad body of Barayev, lying on his back amid blood and broken glass, a cognac bottle in his hand.

In the theater hall, the corpses of several female captors, clad in black robes and head coverings, sprawled in the red plush seats, their heads thrown back or on their folded hands, as if asleep.

Canisters loaded with explosives and metal fragments were attached to the waists of some captors, who threatened to blow up the theater if their demand for Russian troops’ withdrawal from the rebel republic of Chechnya was not met. Hostages said earlier that bombs were placed in the center of the theater and the stage and aisles were mined.

These female hostage-takers, some with what are apparently explosive belts, were killed inside the theater by Russian special forces.

Some of the hostage-takers inside the theater were of Arab appearance, which a Russian security source said confirmed earlier Russian assertions that the group had foreign support for the attack.

“I can confirm that their bodies were among the dead,” the source told MSNBC.com’s Mendenhall on condition of anonymity.

In a meeting with President Vladimir Putin, Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov said about 30 accomplices of the gunmen were arrested in the Moscow area, but details were not immediately available.

Federal Security Service chief Nikolai Patrushev told Putin hours later that none of the estimated 50 captors escaped, contradicting earlier reports. No Russian troops were believed to have died.

TROOPS USE GAS IN RAID

Putin called at one of Moscow’s main hospitals on Saturday to visit survivors of the siege. He stayed in the Sklifosovsky hospital for about 10 minutes before being whisked away in his motorcade.

But doctors there said 42 people were in a poor condition after being treated for poisoning by an unknown substance.

“Forty-two have been admitted. Their condition is poor. All were poisoned with an unknown gas, an unknown poison,” Vladimir Ryabinin, a doctor at Sklifosovsky hospital, said.

The Russian security source told MSNBC.com’s Mendenhall that gas was only used in preparation for raiding the theater.

The negotiators concentrated on securing the release of the children held hostage before releasing the gas inside the theater and going ahead with the raid.

During the negotiations with the rebels, government mediators met one of the insurgents’ demands by releasing an unnamed Chechen militant from a Russian prison in exchange for eight children, who emerged from the theater Friday night looking healthy.

Only after most of the children had been freed from the theater, the source told MSNBC.com, did troops go ahead and release gas inside the building.

Rescue worker Vadim Mikhailov said he and other emergency aid staff rushed into the theater immediately after the special forces. He told MSNBC.com that all efforts were concentrated on reviving people who had been knocked unconscious by the gas.

“People were in shock,” he told MSNBC.com. “Many were knocked unconscious by the gas. All of our efforts were focused on saving those people.”

RESCUE COMES AS DEADLINE PASSES

The rescue operation began about a half-hour after Russian officials said the rebels had killed two male captives and wounded a man and a woman as a deadline they had imposed approached for Putin to begin withdrawing Russian troops from Chechnya, NBC’s Branislav Shilkovich reported.

Mikhailov, the rescue worker, told MSNBC.com he saw at least two dead hostages — a man and a woman — inside the theater. They had both been shot in the head, Mikhailov said, though it was unclear whether they had been executed by the hostage-takers or had been caught in the crossfire when Russian soldiers raided the building.

In the past, Putin has vowed not to countenance negotiations with the Chechen rebels until they ended their battle for independence.

The rebels’ deadline — sunrise Saturday, about midnight EDT — was announced by theater spokeswoman Daria Morgunova, who said it was relayed to her in a cell phone call from an actor being held hostage.

Shortly afterward, Patrushev said the rebels’ lives would be guaranteed if they freed all of the hostages.

However, his offer was mostly ignored. In addition to the eight children released Friday night, the gunmen freed 11 other people during the day. But their reported promises to free the estimated 75 foreigners, including three Americans, were not fulfilled.

Later Friday, Aslambek Aslakhanov, a lawmaker from Chechnya in the federal parliament, journalist Anna Politkovskaya and two Red Cross representatives held a second round of negotiations with the rebels.

“We were constantly told that if they were not provided with a concrete plan to withdraw Russian troops from Chechnya, they threatened to take the most serious measures at 5, 6 or 7 in the morning,” Politkovskaya said when she emerged from the theater.

Over the past decade, Chechens or their sympathizers have been involved in a number of bold, often bloody hostage-taking situations in southern Russian provinces, especially in Dagestan. Nearly 200 hundred hostages and rescuers died in two of those operations.

‘LIKE A MIRACLE’

Outside city Hospital 13, dozens of hostage relatives gathered, waiting for word or the appearance of a treasured face.

A policeman makes an announcement to relatives of former hostages outside a hospital in Moscow on Saturday.

Hostage Olga Dolotova embraced her mother, Galina, when she walked out, then hunched and pulled her jacket hood over head to shield herself from journalists.

Galina Dolotova said her 32-year-old daughter appeared to have been one of the hostages least affected by the gas, but still “she was in terrible shape” when she was brought in.

At the theater, dozens of red-eyed local residents, onlookers and anxious relatives milled around the cordoned-off area, clamoring around TV cameras hoping to hear news of their loved ones.

“All the parents were of the same opinion that the storming would be absolutely unacceptable. It’s like a mystery, like a miracle for us. We were amazed that this could happen like this, without (many) victims,” said the father of one girl who had been among the hostages, and who survived.

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Cell phones were rebels’ downfall

Russians gather key information through hostages

By Preston Mendenhall

MSNBC

MOSCOW, Oct. 26 — During their three-day siege of a Moscow theater, Chechen terrorists allowed hundreds of hostages to use personal cell phones to reassure their family members and relay new demands. What they didn’t know, officials here say, was that Russia’s security services were on the other end listening and gathering information crucial to ending the hostage crisis.

SECURITY OFFICIALS HERE who helped plan the special operation that freed over 700 hostages but killed dozens in the process said Saturday that the relative freedom the rebels gave their hostages proved to be their downfall.

One senior security source, who declined to be identified, said the FSB, a successor to the Soviet-era KGB, identified the dozens of phone calls made by hostages immediately after the attack as an important link to the inside of the theater. The FSB encouraged families of hostages to make themselves available around the clock at a special coordination center near the theater, where 24-hour support and information for the relatives were also provided.

When calls from hostages came, family members first established whether any terrorists were near the person placing the call. Family members and security officials said the phone would be passed to a security officer, who would ask “yes and no” questions to confirm key information about the terrorists — careful not to draw the hostage into a conversation that would be suspicious to the Chechen fighters.

After the rescue operation ended Saturday, security officials credited cell phones with providing information on the number of terrorists, their weapons arsenal and the location of hundreds of hostages spread throughout the multi-storied theater complex. “The phones were our little secret,” one official said, “and through them we knew everything that was going on inside.”

CELLULAR RALLY

During the first two days of the attack, it was the rebels, and not the government, who appeared to be most deft at exploiting the dozens of phones being shared among hostages. On Thursday, several family members received calls from their relatives, urging them to join a protest against the war in Chechnya. About a hundred relatives gathered near the theater echoing the rebels’ demand that Russia end its battle for the breakaway region 1,500 miles south of Moscow. However, many said they believed the terrorists had forced the hostages to make the calls.

While cell phones were an unexpected boost for their operations, the security services began mapping out a raid on the Moscow theater within hours of the Wednesday terrorist attack.

On Saturday, a sleeping gas was used to render the rebels unconscious. Russian media reported that the gas was spread throughout the building through the theater’s ventilation system. Underneath the structure, Moscow sanitation workers led special forces troops to tactical points used in the raid, according to security officials.

But it was the cell phones that yielded the most information. Even the rebels themselves were subjected to eavesdropping. When President Vladimir Putin on the first day of the siege declared that “foreign terrorist centers” had aided the attackers, security officials say the Russian leader was relying on information gathered from the tapped phones of the rebels, who officials say made several phone calls to apparent supporters living abroad.

MSNBC.com’s Preston Mendenhall is on assignment in Moscow.

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Cell phones were rebels’ downfall

Russians gather key information through hostages

By Preston Mendenhall

MSNBC

MOSCOW, Oct. 26 — During their three-day siege of a Moscow theater, Chechen terrorists allowed hundreds of hostages to use personal cell phones to reassure their family members and relay new demands. What they didn’t know, officials here say, was that Russia’s security services were on the other end listening and gathering information crucial to ending the hostage crisis.

SECURITY OFFICIALS HERE who helped plan the special operation that freed over 700 hostages but killed dozens in the process said Saturday that the relative freedom the rebels gave their hostages proved to be their downfall.

One senior security source, who declined to be identified, said the FSB, a successor to the Soviet-era KGB, identified the dozens of phone calls made by hostages immediately after the attack as an important link to the inside of the theater. The FSB encouraged families of hostages to make themselves available around the clock at a special coordination center near the theater, where 24-hour support and information for the relatives were also provided.

When calls from hostages came, family members first established whether any terrorists were near the person placing the call. Family members and security officials said the phone would be passed to a security officer, who would ask “yes and no” questions to confirm key information about the terrorists — careful not to draw the hostage into a conversation that would be suspicious to the Chechen fighters.

After the rescue operation ended Saturday, security officials credited cell phones with providing information on the number of terrorists, their weapons arsenal and the location of hundreds of hostages spread throughout the multi-storied theater complex. “The phones were our little secret,” one official said, “and through them we knew everything that was going on inside.”

CELLULAR RALLY

During the first two days of the attack, it was the rebels, and not the government, who appeared to be most deft at exploiting the dozens of phones being shared among hostages. On Thursday, several family members received calls from their relatives, urging them to join a protest against the war in Chechnya. About a hundred relatives gathered near the theater echoing the rebels’ demand that Russia end its battle for the breakaway region 1,500 miles south of Moscow. However, many said they believed the terrorists had forced the hostages to make the calls.

While cell phones were an unexpected boost for their operations, the security services began mapping out a raid on the Moscow theater within hours of the Wednesday terrorist attack.

On Saturday, a sleeping gas was used to render the rebels unconscious. Russian media reported that the gas was spread throughout the building through the theater’s ventilation system. Underneath the structure, Moscow sanitation workers led special forces troops to tactical points used in the raid, according to security officials.

But it was the cell phones that yielded the most information. Even the rebels themselves were subjected to eavesdropping. When President Vladimir Putin on the first day of the siege declared that “foreign terrorist centers” had aided the attackers, security officials say the Russian leader was relying on information gathered from the tapped phones of the rebels, who officials say made several phone calls to apparent supporters living abroad.

MSNBC.com’s Preston Mendenhall is on assignment in Moscow.

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