Magazine article Newsweek

Show of Nerve: Russian Forces Free Hundreds of Hostages, but 90 Are Dead, and the War with Chechnya's Rebels Isn't Over

Magazine article Newsweek

Show of Nerve: Russian Forces Free Hundreds of Hostages, but 90 Are Dead, and the War with Chechnya's Rebels Isn't Over

Article excerpt

Byline: Christian Caryl and Eve Conant

Anatoly Beloyusov had never seen anything quite like what he found in the ruined auditorium. The professional rescue worker was right behind the Special Forces who stormed Moscow's Melnikova Street theater in a predawn raid, ending a 58-hour standoff in which nearly 850 performers and theatergoers, dozens of them children, were held hostage by a suicide squad of Chechen terrorists. Here and there, among mounds of candy wrappers and empty bottles from the snack bar, lay the corpses of 50 hostage takers. The men wore camouflage uniforms; the women were head to toe in black, with thick belts evidently containing explosive charges strapped to their waists. Some were slumped in the seats where the military's knockout gas had toppled them. By one account, commandos finished off the unconscious female terrorists one by one, with a single bullet each. All around were the hostages, in the aisles, the seats, even the balconies, many in shock, others unconscious--and more than 90 of them dead or dying. Few had obvious wounds. Beloyusov and other emergency workers raced to evacuate the survivors. "All we could say to the hostages was, 'It's going to be all right'."

Russian officials called the raid a spectacular success. Until the Special Forces went in, there had been little hope that anything less than a miracle could save the hostages. The terrorists claimed to have placed enough explosives around the auditorium to demolish the building in case of a rescue attempt, and they vowed to begin executing their captives at 6 a.m. Saturday unless the Kremlin ordered an immediate military withdrawal from Chechnya. The threat reportedly came true even before the deadline. Two hostages were shot dead, and the commandos used overwhelming force to stop the killings. It was soon over. "This is one of the biggest victories anyone has ever scored in the war on terrorism," said Gennady Gudkov, a security expert and deputy in the Russian Parliament. But not all Russians agreed with him. Some worried that the rescue itself had killed many of the hostages. Others were convinced that the whole nightmare might have been avoided if the government had been more amenable to negotiating peace in Chechnya. President Vladimir Putin said he did only what had to be done. "We proved that it is impossible to force Russia to its knees," he said in a nationally televised speech. "We were not able to save everyone," he added. "Forgive us."

The siege began on Wednesday evening, halfway through a performance of the homegrown hit musical "North-East." The night was raw and drizzly, but hundreds of adults and scores of youngsters attended the show, inspired by a popular children's book about polar explorers. As the second act began, a group of armed Chechens burst into the theater, firing their weapons at the ceiling and shouting: "Allahu akbar!" ("God is great!") Their leader was later quoted as saying, "We came here to die." He was Movsar Barayev, 25, the nephew of Arbi Barayev, who headed one of Chechnya's most notorious kidnapping gangs before his death in a shootout with Russian troops about 16 months ago. …

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