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Thursday, 24 October, 2002, 12:58 GMT 13:58 UK
Putin sees 'foreign' plot behind siege
Special police outside theatre
Russian troops were warned not to fire at hostages
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that rebels holding around 500 people hostage in a Moscow theatre planned the attack in "foreign terrorist centres".

In his first televised statement since the drama began on Wednesday evening, he blamed "the same criminals who have been terrorising Chechnya for the last few years" and said the authorities' main aim was to release the hostages.

Mr Putin's remarks came as the rebels released five more people - one British man, three children and a woman.


Russian politicians should scrutinise the activities of soldiers in Chechnya

The BBC's Caroline Wyatt in Moscow says the crisis is a major humiliation for Mr Putin, who has cancelled a trip to the Asia-Pacific summit in Mexico on Saturday where he was due to meet US President George W Bush.

He has also been forced to put off visits to Germany and Portugal.

Negotiations have been taking place in the theatre foyer between rebels and a group consisting of Red Cross officials, members of the Russian parliament and a British journalist.

The rebels have 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.

Sell-out performance

Two other 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, according to the Russian NTV channel
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 performance of the hit musical Nord-Ost on Wednesday evening.

Our correspondent 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, particularly for Russians to avoid revenge attacks on Chechens who live or work in Moscow.

Relative of hostage
Relatives of hostages are waiting anxiously for news

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

The rebels had requested blankets, food and water from the Russian authorities, which have 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.

But a spokesman for the official Chechen rebel leadership, Aslanbek Khadiev, distanced himself from the hostage-taking, condemning attacks against civilians.

'Safe passage'

US Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed the hope that the "tragic situation" would be resolved peacefully.

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

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

Russian TV camera crews have been allowed in the building.

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

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

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



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 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Jonathan Charles
"The gunmen are threatening to shoot their captives"
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"

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