Bloody Drama

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Russian television shows a dead Chechen rebel inside the theater

"They are gassing us! We really beg not to be gassed. We hope it will not be like the Kursk!" As a thick, visible mist enveloped hostages and their takers in Moscow's House of Culture theater, Anya cried for help through her cell phone. The hostage thought she was about to suffocate slowly just like the sailors trapped aboard the crippled Russian submarine Kursk in 2000. "We see it, we feel it, we are breathing through our clothes. We are all going to be blown up!"

But the fast-acting sleeping agent being pumped into the theater was the key ingredient in a daring rescue raid. As early as Day One of the hostage standoff, diggers had been tunneling underneath the theater in preparation for an assault. Now in the early hours of Saturday, gunshots from inside had forced into action the waiting Spetsnaz commando troops in the elite Alfa and Vympel antiterror units of the Federal Security Service. The Chechen hostage takers, it seemed, were about to fulfill their death vow. They had sworn that if Russian President Vladimir Putin had not declared an end to the war in Chechnya by Saturday at dawn, they would start killing hostages. If they were assaulted, they made clear they were ready to blow up explosives plastered around the auditorium and strapped to their bodies.

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But the rescue was precipitated by a small, unexpected act of impatience. After three days locked in the stuffy, smelly auditorium, an agitated young male hostage had had enough. According to one account, he threw a bottle at some of his Chechen captors and ran toward them. A gunman opened fire, missed the youth and hit another man in the eye. "There was blood — foamy. A girl was hit in the side," said Olga Chernyak, an Interfax news reporter among the captives. "It happened right where I was. I thought they would kill us all." As hostages screamed, recalled Chernyak, "The Chechen women were very happy the end was coming and that they would blow us all up. They told us, we have come here to die, and you will be going with us."

The 200-man team from Alfa and Vympel were ordered to set the hostages free in two hours. They donned white armbands to distinguish themselves from the Chechens wearing similar camouflage suits. Then they injected the sleeping gas through the building's ventilating system and holes bored underneath the auditorium, hoping to immobilize the gunmen and especially the explosive-laden women. A source close to the Alfa unit says that five times the required amount of gas was funneled in. "They used a lot, to be on the safe side," he says. "They were well aware of the repercussions for them should the gas attack fail." There was a shattering blast and the rattle of gunfire; then the troops smashed through doors, shooting down hostage takers still capable of firing back. Spetsnaz shot sleeping suicide bombers in the temple at point-blank range. "When a person wears two kilos of plastic explosive, we didn't see any other way of neutralizing them," said a member of the assault team. Ringleader Movsar Barayev sprawled dead on his back on stage with a Cognac bottle — strangely — by his side.

Forty minutes later, all 53 Chechen rebels were dead or captive. Anya and more than 750 other hostages had escaped alive, including some 30 children and 75 foreigners. But at least 90 Russian citizens died in the operation: killed in cross fire, perhaps, or suffocated by the mysterious gas, or even felled by heart attacks. Russian officials stressed that the deaths resulted from the siege's privations and stress. Nevertheless, Moscow hospitals appealed for blood, and eyewitnesses saw unconscious bodies carried from the theater. Many of the freed were delivered straight to toxicological wards to be treated for gas poisoning. The televised pictures of those female guerrillas, explosive packs still tied to their waists and slumped lifelessly in their seats, offered mute testimony to the fast-acting power of the agent.

By Russian standards, the rescue operation was an unexpected success. Putin made the most of it, donning a white doctor's coat to visit freed hostages at a Moscow hospital. Yet for all the claims of victory Saturday, top Kremlin leaders must face up to the security failures that let the Chechen takeover happen in the first place. While it would be "untimely" to fire the country's security chiefs right now, a top Putin aide reportedly said, the President needs to take steps to ensure that such a terrifying event does not happen again in the middle of Moscow.

Many Russians will cheer the success of the rescue. But the Chechen raid may also kindle fierce debate about Putin's war. He rose to the presidency of Russia in 2000 on a promise to restore Moscow's grip on the rebellious republic of Chechnya. For the past two years, he regularly claimed victory was all but won. As the champion of order and stability, Putin enjoyed strong public standing, while the government's harsh censorship of news from the war zone nearly a thousand miles from the capital has kept the grim realities of the stalemated conflict off the front pages and out of the minds of ordinary Russians. Now the brazen takeover of a theater just three miles from the Kremlin has brought the vicious struggle right to their doorstep.

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