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Thursday, 24 October, 2002, 22:53 GMT 23:53 UK
Two hostages flee Moscow theatre
Officials push a body on a stretcher near the Moscow theatre
Police said the dead woman had been shot by rebels
Two young women have escaped from a Moscow theatre where Chechen rebels have been holed up with 500 hostages for more than 24 hours.

Russian politicians should scrutinise the activities of soldiers in Chechnya

One of the two women, both 18-year-olds, suffered light wounds after the rebels threw grenades after them, said a spokesman for security services Sergei Ignachenko, cited by the AFP news agency.

Shortly before their escape, the dead body of another female hostage was brought out of the theatre.

Officials said she had been shot by the rebels, who have been threatening to kill their hostages if Russian troops do not pull out of the breakaway southern republic of Chechnya.

Police in Moscow told the BBC they believed that the woman, in her 20s, was killed while trying to escape during the night, contradicting earlier statements that she had died of an illness.

Hostage Maria Shkolnikova
Maria Shkolnikova was sent out to make the hostages' demands
The Arabic al-Jazeera television station has broadcast pictures of, what it says, are members of the Chechen rebel group behind the siege.

One of the men shown said they had come to the Russian capital to "stop the war or die for the sake of God".

The BBC's Central Asian analyst says that whether the clips are genuine or not, comments by the group show they clearly belong to a faction of the Chechen separatist movement which emphasises its Islamic inspiration.

'Life-or-death situation'

The hostages have appealed directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin to settle the crisis by meeting the rebels' demands.

"We beg you to take a sensible decision and to halt military actions in Chechnya. There have been enough wars," heart specialist Maria Shkolnikova said in a brief appearance outside the theatre on behalf of the hostages.

Click here for a map of the area

"Today we have ended up in a life-or-death situation. We beg you to resolve the issue by peaceful means," she said, reading out a hand-written letter.

In New York, the United Nations Security Council condemned the hostage-takers and demanded the immediate and unconditional release of all the captives.

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

The gunmen have already released as many as 200 members of the audience, mainly women and children.

On Thursday morning they let a British man, three children and a woman go.

But an estimated 500 people remain in the theatre - 75 of whom are foreigners according to FBS, the Russian security service.

Russian MPs negotiating with the hostage-takers say they appear to have no plans to release any more people, and that the situation is deteriorating.

Some of the hostages, said State Duma deputy Valeriy Draganov, were now in a very "serious condition", and rebels are refusing them the hot food the authorities had offered.

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

Many of those still being held inside the theatre have been tied to seats, and there are reports that men and women have been separated into different areas.

However, Mr Draganov said there were no plans at present to storm the building.

In his first televised statement since the drama began, President Putin said the attack had been planned in "foreign terrorist centres", and ordered his security chiefs to ensure the release of the hostages unharmed.

The BBC's Caroline Wyatt in Moscow says the crisis is humiliating for Mr Putin who has been forced to cancel overseas trips where he would have met US President George W Bush and other world leaders.

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Siege reports

Key stories

Chechen conflict



See also:

19 Aug 02 | Europe
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27 Sep 02 | Europe
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24 Oct 02 | Europe
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