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Thursday, 24 October, 2002, 11:25 GMT 12:25 UK
Chechens release more hostages
Special police outside theatre
Russian troops were warned not to fire at hostages
The Chechen rebels holding up to 800 people hostage in a Moscow theatre have reportedly released five more people.

One of those freed is thought to be a foreigner, although earlier attempts to release up to 30 Westerners appear to have been delayed.


The main thing is that troops must be pulled out or they will start shooting people

Hostage Maria Shkolnikova
They repeated via one of the hostages an earlier threat to start shooting their captives if Russia failed to take their demands to withdraw its troops from Chechnya seriously.

Three Britons are reported to be among the hostages, along with seven Germans, four Americans, two Canadians, two Austrians and two Dutch citizens. Ambassadors from several countries are now at the scene.

Movsar Barayev
Movsar Barayev: Came to Moscow to die
Dozens of heavily armed Chechen rebels stormed into the theatre in the south of Moscow in the middle of a sell-out performance of the hit musical Nord-Ost on Wednesday evening.

The BBC's Caroline Wyatt in Moscow says the rebels have succeeded in drawing world attention back to their cause - the suffering of the Chechen people during almost a decade of warfare.

Click here for a map of the area

Separatists in the mainly Muslim region have waged two wars against Russia including the current three-year guerrilla campaign, and some groups have been involved in hostage-taking.

Explosion

From all levels of authority in Russia there are calls for restraint, for Russians to avoid revenge attacks on Chechens who live or work in Moscow.

The rebels freed three children and five women on Thursday.

Earlier, a loud explosion was heard at the theatre. The rebels said it was caused by a grenade thrown into an empty room.

There are reports that at least two Russian TV camera crews are being allowed into the building.

In mobile phone calls made to Russian TV before the phones were removed by the rebels, hostages said they were being treated relatively well.

Relative of hostage
Relatives of hostages are waiting anxiously for news
The rebels had requested blankets, food and water from the Russian authorities, which had been sent in.

Earlier, the hostage-takers' leader, Movsar Barayev, said they were a Chechen "suicide" unit demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya.

The rebels told Kavkaz-Centre they had shot a woman Federal Security Service (FSB) officer who tried to enter the theatre, ignoring their warnings.

Humiliation

Our correspondent says the crisis is a major humiliation for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has cancelled a planned visit to Germany and Portugal.

Chechnya
Mainly Muslim region in south Russia which declared independence in 1991
Tens of thousands killed in two subsequent wars
A mass Chechen hostage-taking in 1995 left more than 100 civilians dead

There is said to be anger and bewilderment, with many Muscovites asking why Mr Putin has given no reassurances or comfort.

There has, however, been reaction from the United States. Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed the hope that the "tragic situation" would be resolved peacefully.

Two Russian politicians of Chechen extraction, Aslanbek Aslakhanov and Ruslan Khasbulatov, tried to mediate overnight but made no progress.

A senior Russian Government official, Alexei Volin, said the security forces had two priorities: to save the hostages and make no concessions to the attackers.

But the Russian authorities have reportedly told the rebels that they will guarantee them safe passage to another country if all the hostages are freed unharmed.

Confirming that the FSB had made contact with the group, Mr Volin rejected the idea that the hostage-takers could seriously force a withdrawal from Chechnya:

"Hostage-taking does not stop wars, it fans them even further."

Appeals

One woman hostage, Tatyana Solnyshkina, told Russian TV that the attackers were ready to kill 10 hostages for any one of their number killed if the security forces intervened.

Russian sniper outside theatre
Special forces have been deployed at the scene

Another, heart specialist Maria Shkolnikova, called for international intervention to end the crisis.

"We need the international community to get involved in this situation and we need journalists to take part in this with no arms," she said.

"Please, do not storm the building," she said, adding that the attackers had a "very large amount of explosives".

Other witnesses who either escaped or were freed by the rebels described seeing men and women with explosives strapped to their bodies and wielding assault rifles.

The theatre
Housed in a former cultural centre belonging to a ball-bearing factory on Melnikov Street
Producer says theatre can seat 1,163 viewers
Tickets sold for Wednesday's show: 711
Cast and crew: 85, with 50 theatre staff also present

The rebels are believed to have freed about 200 people, including women, children, Muslims and some foreigners, Russian police say.

The attackers' leader, a nephew of the late Chechen warlord Arbi Barayev, said he and his "mujahideen" gunmen and 20 Chechen women were "suicide attackers" who had come to Moscow "not to survive, but to die".

"Nobody will get out of here alive and they will die along with us if any attempt is made to storm the building," Movsar Barayev told Kavkaz-Centre by telephone.

But a spokesman for the official Chechen rebel leadership, Aslanbek Khadiev, said: "We condemn any terrorist attacks against civilians".



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 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Russia's ambassador in London, Gregori Karasin
"We are dealing with dangerous people"
Chechen separatist movement, Aslanbek Kadiev
"This is an independent disparate group of Chechens"
Russian actress on the stage at the time
"They started shooting into the air"
The BBC's David Chazan
"Russians are shocked at the audacious strike in their capital"

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Chechen conflict

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See also:

24 Oct 02 | Europe
19 Aug 02 | Europe
09 Sep 02 | Europe
27 Sep 02 | Europe
25 Jun 01 | Europe
24 Oct 02 | Europe
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