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Tuesday, 29 October, 2002, 11:06 GMT
How special forces ended siege
Russian Special Forces troops
Special Forces moved in before dawn
Russian special forces had around three days to plan their assault on the Moscow theatre siege - and possibly only minutes to decide whether to put it into effect.

The theatre was liberated in a dramatic pre-dawn storming on Saturday, apparently triggered by the sound of gunfire from inside the besieged building in the early hours of the morning.

Soldiers believed the Chechen gunmen were carrying out their threat to start executing hostages, and their assault plan swung into effect.

Some reports said the situation was judged so critical that the storming decision was taken by Special Forces officers on the ground, without reference to President Putin.


They are gassing us - we really beg not to be gassed

Female hostage live on radio
But eyewitness reports from inside the theatre suggest the Chechens had not started executing hostages.

Rather, they had opened fire on one hostage - described as a small boy or a man - who had thrown a bottle at some of the Chechens and then run shouting down an aisle.

Two hostages were hit, say witnesses, before an uneasy calm was restored.

But to officials outside, who had been anticipating the start of executions at 0600 on Saturday, the sound of gunfire signalled the need for action.

The exact sequence of the events, which unfolded in darkness over the next few hours, remains unclear.

Within an hour of the first shooting, journalists reported hearing an explosion and more gunfire.

The blast has not been officially explained. Was it the sound of Russian forces blasting a hole in the side of the building, or was it further rebel violence inside the besieged theatre itself?


A panic went up among us and people were screaming, 'Gas! gas!' and, yes, there was shooting

Theatre director
Georgy Vasilyev
Either way, within another two hours, at 0530, the full-scale assault began.

An incapacitating gas - later described by Russia as opium-based - was pumped in, with fatal consequences for dozens of the hostages.

Some reports say it came through the specially-created hole in the wall; others that it was pumped through the theatre's ventilation system; still others that it emerged from beneath the stage in the form of a green, caustic gas.

What is clear is that those inside - both kidnappers and hostages - realised what was happening.

"We were sitting, dozing. It was 5 o'clock or so in the morning and suddenly there was a strange smell. The last thing I heard was when the Chechens shouted: 'Turn on the air-conditioning - it is gas'," said one hostage.

"They are gassing us," another hostage told Moscow Echo radio station, in a harrowing interview broadcast live as the operation unfolded.


Those gunmen who were on stage started to fire at us, and we hit them

FSB official
"We really beg not to be gassed. We hope it will not be like Kursk," the woman said.

Others described the terror among the hostages and kidnappers as they realised gas was being pumped in.

"A panic went up among us and people were screaming, 'Gas! gas!' and, yes, there was shooting," said theatre director Georgy Vasilyev.

"When the shooting began, they (the rebels) told us to lean forward in the theatre seats and cover our heads behind the seats. But then everyone fell asleep," he told Reuters news agency.

Soldiers at the scene of the Moscow theatre siege
The battle between police and rebels lasted more than one hour
"And they (the rebels) were sitting there with their heads thrown back and their mouths wide open."

The gas was pumped in for 30 minutes before a force of 200 Spetsnaz began their full-scale assault, sources in the force later told Russia's Izvestiya newspaper.

From all sides, dozens of men - some from the elite Alpha and Vympel sections - swarmed in, masked and heavily armed.

One squad burst into the auditorium from the theatre's basement. Even the sewers had been used, some reports said, to get close enough to use listening devices.

Another unit burst through the front door.

Gun battles erupted with still-conscious fighters, say officials from the FSB, Russia's security service.


We came in through specially-made openings and just shot the sleeping terrorists at point-blank range

Unnamed Spetsnaz officer, quoted in UK Observer
"Those gunmen who were on stage started to fire at us, and we hit them," one officer said on Russian television.

"Then we started to deploy across the hall. There were more gunmen firing submachine-guns at us from the right side of the hall, but we hit again."

Other gun battles were reported by the Russians in the theatre's lobby.

Officials described how at least one of the women fighters had been shot dead as she held a grenade in her hand.

As the forces moved through the building to secure it, other rebels were tracked down who had escaped the gas.

Refuge from gas

"The Chechens put up stiff opposition. The gas had no effect on the bandits who were not the hall itself, but in the corridors, so they returned fire and attempted to shower our fighters with grenades, but they were all liquidated in minutes," said Izvestiya's source.

"We killed all the terrorists and didn't shoot a single hostage, and not one of our fighters was hurt."

Explosive device left in the Moscow theatre
None of the rebels' explosive devices went off
Some media reports said the female bombers had been killed by a shot to the temple while unconscious.

One special forces officer was quoted in the UK's Observer newspaper as confirming that unconscious Chechens had been executed at point blank range.

Certainly nearly all the 50-odd rebels were dead by the time Russians declared the building secure at 0720 - less than two hours after the raid began.

More than 40 had died of gunshot wounds, not from the effects of the gas.

For the hostages, it was the gas which was the big killer - around 113 are thought to have died from its effects.

Two of the Alpha force were also overcome by the gas.

A handful of surviving fighters were led away in handcuffs. Authorities later said that others might have escaped.

Suspected agent

Other incidents during the siege's dramatic final hours remain - for the moment at least - unexplained.

One is the appearance inside the theatre of an apparently distraught father early on Saturday - just hours before the siege reached its deadly climax.

He appeared in the lobby, bloodied and bruised, claiming to have broken through police lines in a desperate search for his hostage son.

The rebels suspected him of being an FSB agent, and reports said he was dragged away and killed.

The FSB has not confirmed losing an agent, although some sources have hinted that the agency did suffer losses.

It also remains unclear why the Chechens did not appear to set off any explosives or to fire on their hostages once the assault got under way.


 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Paul Adams
"Should the Russians have used chemicals at all to end the theatre siege?"

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26 Oct 02 | Europe
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