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Saturday, 26 October, 2002, 03:22 GMT 04:22 UK
Russian forces enter siege theatre
Hostages shown on Russia's NTV
The conditions for hostages are worsening
Russian special forces have entered the theatre building in Moscow where Chechen separatists have been holding hundreds of hostages.

In the hours beforehand, there were explosions and gunfire in the area around the theatre.

gunwoman (NTV)
The rebels are armed and wearing explosives
BBC correspondent Nikolai Gorshkov said a government spokesperson said the commotion was Russian special forces responding to a group of hostages who tried to break out of the building and had inadvertently set off booby traps placed by the rebels.

A gunfight then erupted between the rebels and Russian soldiers, during which two female hostages were reportedly freed.

Several ambulances were seen rushing to the scene.

Russian officials were quoted as saying the Chechens had begun killing hostages, as they threatened to do if their demands were not met by dawn on Saturday Moscow time.

Journalists are being kept away from the scene, making it difficult to verify what is happening.

Executions threat

The sporadic gunfire and explosions began some hours ago.

The BBC's Nikolai Gorshkov in Moscow says reporters on the ground heard what they believe was a series of grenade explosions and automatic gunfire outside the theatre.

The hostages are being held for a third night by heavily armed rebels, who had reportedly threatened to begin executing them on Saturday morning unless Russia ends the war in the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov had earlier urged the rebels to refrain from "any hasty action", his spokesman told a Russian radio station.

The hostage takers have told the BBC that a special representative of President Putin is to come to the theatre for talks on Saturday.

However there has been no word on this from the Russian authorities.

'Scuffle'

When the first explosion was heard some hours ago, a rebel spokesman told the BBC that rebels had set off a grenade after seeing Russian special forces soldiers moving around in the no-man's land in between the theatre and the police cordon.

Two more hostages were earlier released by the rebels and taken to hospital, but it is not known what condition they were in.


I am amazed this hasn't happened before now - the Chechen war has been both brutal and dubious

Russian authorities have offered to spare the lives of the Chechens if they release more than 600 remaining hostages unharmed.

A Russian official said late on Friday the rebels had released four more captives - all of them Azeris, according to a rebel spokesman who spoke to the BBC.

Earlier in the day, eight children and seven others were released, but hopes were dashed that the 75 foreign nationals inside the theatre might be freed when negotiations broke down.

The British ambassador in Moscow has visited the theatre but came back empty handed. Experts have been sent from London to help negotiate.

The foreign nationals include Americans, Britons, Germans, Dutch, Australians and Ukrainians.

'Threatening' atmosphere

Conditions for the captives, who have been held since the guerrillas stormed the theatre in the middle of a sell-out musical on Wednesday night, have worsened.

There are growing concerns about food and sanitation, although the gunmen have allowed a medical team in to visit the sick.

The offer to spare the captors' lives - the first the Russians have presented to the hostage-takers - was made after a meeting between the FSB and President Vladimir Putin.

Anti-war protest in central Moscow
Relatives have staged anti-war protests at the rebels request

But reports from hostages say the guerrillas have given Russia a matter of hours to meet their demands, before they start shooting the captives.

They have already killed one woman and wounded another as she escaped.

The rebels gave Russia a week to bring an end to the war in Chechnya or they would blow up themselves, the hostages and the theatre.

The group - including women with explosives strapped around them - is armed with assault-rifles, grenades and pistols.

From the start, they have said they are willing to die for their cause and would set off their explosives if the building was stormed.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Ben Brown
"There's confusion about exactly what the rebels are asking for, exactly what deadline they've set"
The BBC's David Loyn
"Mr Putin's presidency depends again on how he handles the Chechens"
Security advisor to former President Boris Yeltsin
"Nothing positive will happen before Putin takes the decision to stop the war"

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Chechen conflict

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25 Oct 02 | Europe
25 Oct 02 | Europe
27 Sep 02 | Europe
25 Oct 02 | Europe
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