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Theatre hostages: 'A lot of blood'

A woman and three children are freed by the gunmen
A woman and three children are freed by the gunmen

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Five hostages have been released from the Moscow theatre where about 700 are being held hostage.
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CNN's Ryan Chilcote on how gunmen claiming Chechen sympathy stormed a Moscow theatre and took the audience hostage.
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RELATED

• Eyewitness: 'A lot of blood' 
• Background: Chechen-Russian conflict 
• Interactive: Russia's Forgotten War 

• Russian Government: Official Information external link
• Pro-rebel Website: kavkaz.org external link
FACT BOX
A glance at Chechnya and its conflict:
GEOGRAPHY: Oil-rich region in northern Caucasus Mountains of southern Russia, 7,720 square miles, or about size of New Jersey. Moscow considers area vital to maintaining influence in Caucasus region.

POPULATION: Estimated 1.2 million people; several hundred thousand have fled region to escape fighting. Population mostly Muslim with strong religious beliefs. Clan-type groups with influential elders.

HISTORY WITH RUSSIA: Conquered by czarist armies in 1859 after decades of war, but Chechens never accepted Russian rule. During World War II, dictator Josef Stalin ordered Chechens deported en masse to Kazakhstan. Many died; rest returned home in 1950s, after Stalin's death.

CURRENT CONFLICT: Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev declared area's independence in 1991 and proclaimed one-man rule in 1993. Russian troops invaded to oust Dudayev in December 1994, setting off 13-month war that killed up to 30,000. In 1997, Russian soldiers killed Dudayev. Fighting resumed in 1999, after raids by Chechen rebels into neighboring region and bombings that killed some 300 at apartment buildings in Russian cities. Russian leaders blamed bombings on Chechens.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

MOSCOW, Russia -- What little is known about the conditions inside the Moscow theatre where gunmen are holding up to 700 people has come from the hostages themselves.

The gunmen stormed the theatre and its stage on Wednesday night during a performance of "Nord Ost," a popular Russian musical. (Full story)

In the initial confusion some members of the audience, which is believed to include some 60 foreigners, and the production staff managed to escape.

One woman who escaped said: "At the beginning of the second act, people in camouflage uniforms, they ran up on stage and they started firing Kalashnikovs.

"I didn't hear any political demands."

She added: "There was a Georgian woman. They let her go. She said there was a lot of blood.

"It didn't seem like they were shooting people, it seemed like they were beating people. She said there was a lot of blood in the corridors."

Others in the audience were able to make calls on mobile telephones to various Russian television stations and news agencies. Most pleaded with the Russian authorities not to use force.

Among them was child heart specialist Maria Shkolnikova who called the radio station Ekho Moskvy and the Reuters news agency.

She told Reuters: "A huge amount of explosives have been laid through the place."

Shkolnikova said explosives had been laid in passageways and on seats and even attached to hostages themselves.

She told Ekho Moskvy: "They are saying 'You have been sitting here for 10 hours and your government has done nothing to secure your release.'

"The main thing is that troops must be pulled out or they will start shooting people."

Two reporters from the Italian news agency Ansa, who were freed from the theatre, said the group's leader had threatened to kill 10 people an hour if his demands were not met.

They quoted one of the captors as saying: "We can resist as long as we want. We are ready to die, we want an absolute end to the war and the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya."

Another hostage Tatyana Solnyshkina, speaking by mobile telephone, addressed security forces live on NTV television. "Please do not start storming," she said.

"There are a lot of explosives. Don't open fire on them. I am very scared, I ask you please do not start attacking."

The Chechen news website www.kavkaz.org issued a statement by the attackers' commander, Movsar Barayev.

It said: "There's more than a thousand people here.

"No one will get out of here alive and they'll die with us if there's any attempt to storm the building."

The authorities also confirmed that the hostage-takers had released 41 people within the first hours of the siege, including some children, a woman who was pregnant, citizens of Georgia, foreigners, and Muslims.

At the scene are foreign embassy officials representing several nations whose nationals are believed to be among the hostages. (Image gallery)

It is believed the 700 being held include people from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Australia, Britain and the U.S.

late on Thursday morning the hostage-takers allowed fresh water into the building and had requested that a Russian TV crew be allowed to come inside to shoot video, officials said.

Soon afterwards, three representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross and Iosif Kobzon, a Russian parliament member, entered the theatre.

Minutes later, five people, including a young girl and a man in his 60s, appearing feeble and distraught, left the theatre.

One of the children freed on Wednesday night
One of the children freed on Wednesday night

In another dramatic moment, about two hours later, Shkolnikova was allowed to step outside the theatre to read an appeal to President Vladimir Putin urging him to end military action in Chechnya.

"We ask President Vladimir Putin to stop military actions in Chechnya," the letter said.

"These people are very serious, they are not going to joke and may launch terrorist acts all over Russia."

Russian forces left Chechnya in 1996 after a disastrous two-year war, but they returned in 1999 after rebels raided a neighbouring region. (Background)

The Russian authorities blamed rebels for a series of bombings in Russia that killed more than 300 people.



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