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The crisis began just after 9 on Wednesday night. After an intermission, theatergoers headed back to their seats in the 1,163-seat auditorium for Act II of Nord-Ost (North-East), a popular musical romance. Suddenly, masked attackers in battle dress burst into the building. Some fired into the air, while others raced onto the stage shouting, "We are Chechens!" and "We are at war here!"
A third of the attackers were said by intelligence officials to be widows of fighters killed in the decade-old war, which made them eager to sacrifice themselves for the cause. Black-masked men carrying Kalashnikovs wired plastic explosives to pillars, walls and seats enough, they warned, to bring down the entire building if Russian troops stormed it. Only their leader, the 25-year-old Barayev, defiantly bared his face.
The raid marks a new chapter in the separatists' struggle. As far as they are concerned, "Any Russian who pays taxes and is silent over the war is a legitimate target," said a Chechen friend of Barayev's. Their intent was simple: "If the Russian people don't understand there's a war going on in Chechnya," explained a young Chechen in Moscow, "we'll bring it to them." The theater siege was the work of a generation of Chechens who feel they have nothing left to lose. And more such attacks are possible, Chechen sources told Time, waged by young, desperate, angry guerrillas bolstered by their Islamic faith. Barayev's crew made their single-minded objective plain in a videotape they sent Thursday morning to al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based channel frequently used by Islamic terrorists to broadcast messages. "I swear by God we are more keen on dying than you are keen on living," said a man who claimed to be one of the hostage takers. "Each one of us is willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of God and the independence of Chechnya."
Putin was not one to be moved by such rebel demands. He has long resisted opposition calls for peace talks with the Chechens. And his hard-line rivals would pounce on any sign of retreat from his promise to defeat Chechnya militarily. While a long line of self-styled or improvised negotiators paraded in and out of the theater, all Putin offered was a willingness to talk on his own tough terms.
Early on, the Russian President sought to shift the blame for the crisis to international terrorism. The takeover, he announced, was planned in "foreign terrorist centers" by the "same people" responsible for attacks like the recent bombing in Bali. That reverberated well in Washington, where Putin has long argued he is fighting exactly the kind of Islamic terrorism that led toSept. 11. President Bush quickly called tooffer solidarity and general assistance.
But Chechens were doing this kind of thing long before al-Qaeda loomed large. This is homegrown terrorism, born in the ruins of Chechnya's cities and towns, where a barbarous occupation has been unable to crush an equally savage campaign of secession. After a disastrous two-year war whose military humiliations and soaring body count nearly unseated then President Boris Yeltsin, Russia withdrew in 1996, leaving Chechnya virtually independent. Russia stepped back in when Putin blamed Chechens for a series of 1999 Moscow apartment bombings that killed nearly 300. Though some doubted that Chechens were responsible, Russians rallied to Putin's promise that this time the army would destroy the rebellion for good.
Putin has floated on that wave of patriotic support ever since. The war was safely remote. Many Russians despise Chechens as "blacks" who lie, cheat and steal. "We must round up all these black scum in Moscow and tell the terrorists we'll be killing 100 of them for each dead Russian," declared a burly, bearded Muscovite, in the crowd outside the theater, whose son is fighting in Chechnya. "Yeah," agreed a young man nearby. "And if we withdraw our army from Chechnya, they'll butcher all the Russians there." For citizens like these, Putin's standing will suffer if he does not hang tough.