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Saturday, 26 October, 2002, 17:11 GMT 18:11 UK
Moscow hostage death toll soars
A woman being carried from the theatre
Some of the hostages were unconscious when rescued
At least 90 hostages and 50 rebels have been killed in a raid on a Moscow theatre and its aftermath, the Russian health ministry has announced.

The death toll could rise yet further, correspondents say, with 450 of the freed captives being treated in hospital, scores of them seriously injured.

The operation was carried out brilliantly by special forces

Moscow Mayor, Yuri Luzhkov
Many hostages were unconscious and others had difficulties breathing, apparently as a result of gas pumped into the building by special forces to quell the guerrillas.

Euphoria swept Moscow as news broke of the ending of the three-day siege, but correspondents say the mood could change amid the rising number of victims and questions about the force used in the raid.

Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Vasilyev said Russia would grieve with the relatives of the civilians who died, but stressed that 750 people - including all the children held captive - had been rescued alive.

He said everyone in the theatre could have been killed if the mines laid by the rebels had exploded.

Medics carry an unidentified casualty on a stretcher
Hundreds of freed hostages were taken straight to hospital
"The structure of the building and the threat of an explosion gave evidence that no-one would survive in the building if the explosion was powerful enough. Such is its architecture," he said.

One official told the Interfax news agency that 30 explosive devices with a huge combined power had been found inside the theatre.

President Vladimir Putin - who was informed of the raid only as it began - has visited some of those rescued.

The BBC's Stephen Eke in Moscow said at least nine hostages taken to hospital with breathing problems had since died, though the Interior Ministry blamed their deaths on pre-existing medical conditions.

But another BBC correspondent in the Russian capital, Jonathan Charles, reports that doctors have not been told what kind of knock-out gas was used and so do not know what antidotes to administer to patients.

Officials said it was necessary to use the gas, saying it prevented the Chechen rebels from detonating explosives.

Raid praised

Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov said: "The operation was carried out brilliantly by special forces."

President Putin visits some of the injured in hospital
President Putin visited some of the injured hostages
He said he had wanted a negotiated end, but the final attack was made necessary by the killing of hostages.

The raid came within minutes of a deadline set by the guerrillas threatening to start killing hostages if their demands were not met.

Two women hostages were shot dead, sparking panic among the other captives which in turn prompted the raid.

The Russian president's special envoy for human rights in Chechnya, Abdul-Khakim Sultygov, said the end of the siege would spur efforts to prepare a national referendum on a Chechen constitution.

He said the outcome was "a good lesson to the terrorists and their accomplices".

Chechen condemnation

Chechnya's elected President, Aslan Maskhadov, said he felt responsible for those "who resorted to self-sacrifice in despair" though the rebels had nothing to do with official policy.

But he said the "barbaric and inhumane policies" of the Russian leadership were ultimately to blame and criticised the storming of the theatre.

"It is clear that a peaceful outcome was not included in the plans of those who have a hand in the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people," he said in a statement published on a Chechen website.

Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov has launched a Moscow-wide operation to catch anyone who may have helped the rebels and 30 people have been arrested.

But he has also ordered measures to prevent outbursts of anti-Chechen feeling in Russia, echoing a call for people not to seek revenge by President Putin on Friday.

Three-day siege

The Chechen rebel leader, Movsar Barayev, was among the 50 rebels - including 18 women - who died in Saturday's pre-dawn raid which sparked an intense, hour-long gun battle.

Movsar Barayev
Rebel leader Movsar Barayev was killed in the gun battle

The assault came more than two days after the Chechens seized control of the Palace of Culture theatre, about four kilometres (2.7 miles) south-east of the Kremlin.

Hundreds of Russians and foreigners were inside the theatre, watching a performance of the popular musical Nord-Ost.

The rebels demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya and an end to the war there.


Vladimir Putin, Russian President
"We couldn't save them all, please forgive us"
Strategic Studies Centre's Andrey Piontkovsky
"The rebels have rather undermined their cause"
Dr Pavel Felgenhauer, defence analyst
"They pumped gas into the theatre, apparently this was some kind of psychedelic compound, like LSD"

Siege reports

Key stories

Chechen conflict



See also:

26 Oct 02 | Europe
26 Oct 02 | Europe
26 Oct 02 | Europe
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