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Moscow theatre siege

Chechen terrorists, led by Movsar Barayev[?], seized the House of Culture for the State Ball-Bearing Plant Number 1, a Moscow theater (so named because it was formerly owned by this bearing plant), during a sold out performance of Nord-Ost on Wednesday, October 23, 2002. Taking over 700 patrons and performers hostage, they demanded the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya. Early Saturday morning, October 26, forces from Russia's elite Spetsnaz commando unit of the Federal Security Services[?] pumped sleeping gas (actually an aerosol) into the theater through a hole in the wall, and then stormed the building.

At least 50 terrorists and 120 hostages (official figures - 33 and 128 respectively) died in the raid or shortly thereafter. The terrorists were shot in the head. Two hostages were shot by terrorists, while the others died through a combination of the fentanyl-based aerosol, lack of food and water, and the lack of adequate medical treatment following the raid.

Barayev, nephew of a slain Chechen military leader, and approximately 50 heavily armed terrorists entered the theater during a crowded performance and threatened to execute hostages until Russian forces withdrew from Chechnya. Approximately half of the terrorists were women, which is highly unusual. Cell phone conversations with hostages trapped in the building revealed that the terrorists had grenades and other explosives strapped to their bodies, and had deployed more explosives throughout the theater, indicating that they would blow up the entire building if government security personnel attempted to attack.

A videotaped statement was acquired by the media, in which the terrorists indicated their willingness to die for their cause. In the first days, the terrorists released Muslim members of the audience, some of the children in the audience, and a man with a heart condition, but refused requests to release non-Russian nationals. Several hostages managed to escape through rear or side windows; others were shot at by the terrorists as they attempted to escape, including at least one who was killed.

During the Spetznatz siege, most of the terrorists were shot in the head at point-blank range, indicating that they were executed after already losing consciousness to the gas. One Russian commando told the media, "I understand that this is cruel, but when there are two kilograms of plastic explosives hanging on a person, we saw no other way of rendering them safe."

Efforts to treat victims were complicated because the Russian government refused to tell doctors what type of gas had been used. The head doctor of the Moscow public health department announced that all but one of the hostages that were killed in the raid had died of the effects of the unknown gas, rather than from gunshot wounds. At the time, the gas was surmised to be some sort of surgical anaesthetic or chemical weapon. Foreign embassies in Moscow, including the United States Embassy, issued official requests for more information on the gas to aid in treatment, but were publicly ignored.

Russian President Vladimir Putin defended the raid in a televised address later that morning, stating that the government had "achieved the near impossible, saving hundreds, hundreds of people," asked forgiveness for not being able to save more of the hostages, and declared Monday a national day of mourning for those who died.

Armed guards were posted at the hospitals the victims were taken to, and doctors were ordered not to release any of the theater patients, in case terrorists had somehow hidden themselves among the hostages. Family members of hostages panicked as the government refused to release any information about which hospitals their loved ones had been taken to, or even whether their relatives were among the dead.

While still refusing to identify the gas, on October 28 the Russian government informed the US Embassy of some of the gas' effects. Based on this information and examinations of victims, doctors concluded the gas was a morphine derivative.

On Wednesday, October 30, Russia responded to increasing domestic and international pressure with a statement on the unknown gas by Health Minister Yuri Shevchenko[?]. He identified it as an aerosol of a Fentanyl derivative, a powerful opiate. A German toxicology professor who examined several German hostages said that their blood and urine contained halothane, a surgical anesthetic not commonly used in the west, and that it was likely the gas had additional components.

While the siege was underway, the Russian government closed one television station, censored the coverage of another television station and a radio station, and publicly rebuked a newspaper for its coverage. On November 1, the lower house of the Duma approved broad new restrictions on press coverage of terrorism related incidents, widely expected to meet with swift approval by the upper house and then Putin. The Duma refused to consider a proposal by the liberal Union of Right Forces[?] party to form an investigative commission charged with probing the government's actions in the theatre siege. These new policies prompted renewed fears in Russia that Putin is systematically taking control of all Russian media.

Rebel military commander Shamil Basayev[?] posted a statement on his website claiming responsibility for the incident, resigning all official positions within the Chechen government, and apologizing to Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov[?] for not informing him of the planned raid. The Russian government claims wiretapped phone conversations prove that Maskhadov knew of the plans in advance, which he denies.

The attacks prompted Putin to tighten Russia's grip on Chechnya. The Russian government's media agency reported that 30 rebel fighters were killed in a battle outside Grozny on October 28, and Putin announced that unspecified "measures adequate to the threat" would henceforth be taken in response to terrorist activity. The Chechens have responded in kind to the increased frequency of Russian raids following the siege. President Maskhadov's unconditional offer for talks with Russia was dismissed, as the Russians believe he exerts little influence in Chechnya.

Russia also accused Akhmed Zakayev, a Chechen envoy and associate of Aslan Maskhadov of involvement. When he visited Denmark for a congress in October 2002, the Russians demanded his arrest and extradition. In Denmark he was held for over a month, but released when the Danish authorities were not convinced that sufficient evidence had been provided. On December 7, Zakajev claimed asylum in London. The British authorities arrested him but he was released on bail, paid by Vanessa Redgrave among others.

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