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Seven freed from Moscow theater

Woman victim
Doctors recover the body of a woman slain by the hostage-takers

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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 (CNN) -- Seven hostages were released early Friday from a Moscow theater where Chechen gunmen have been holding 700 hostages for more than 24 hours.

The six women and one man were released at two intervals -- 5.30 a.m. (0130 GMT) and 6.30 a.m. -- according ot Russia's FSB domestic security service.

The gunmen are holding fast to their demand for an end to war in Chechnya and are threatening to kill their captives if that demand is not met within a week.

Thirty-seven people either have been released or have escaped, including three women who were seen on video rushing from the building and jumping into the arms of waiting law enforcement officials.

Witnesses heard the sound of two explosions which, sources said, was the dissidents' firing bazookas during the women's escape.

The women made their escape as medical personnel entered the building, sources told CNN.

CNN's Mike Hanna said the Federal Security Service (FSB) said one of its men had been wounded.

Russian officials, international diplomats and Red Cross workers are hoping to bring the situation to a non-violent conclusion, but there were no formal negotiations under way as the standoff entered its second day.

Thirty-seven people so far have either been released or have escaped from the theatre.

The bazooka blasts came on Thursday evening, hours after the body of a 20-year-old woman was removed from the theatre and as the siege entered its second day.

A Russian medical services spokesman said the woman had been shot in the chest and her fingers broken, and it appeared she had been killed trying to escape when the audience was taken captive on Wednesday evening.

Hanna said the FSB said there were 75 foreign nationals among the 700 hostages from the United States, UK, Holland and Australia.

The 40-strong group of Chechen guerrillas include 10 masked women with explosives strapped to their bodies who had joined the audience.

A televised message from the group, who call themselves a "suicide squad" or "smertniki" said they were willing to die in the theatre standoff and take the "sinners" with them. (Full story)

The tape aired on Thursday on Al-Jazeera TV showed Chechen dissidents, some of them veiled women, telling how they were seeking "a just solution" after "the Russian occupiers have flooded our land with our children's blood."

"We have chosen this approach... for the freedom of the Chechen people and there is no difference in where we die, and therefore we have decided to die here, in Moscow. And we will take with us the lives of hundreds of sinners."

Several shooting incidents were reported in different parts of the five-storey theatre, a featureless modern building attached to a ball-bearing plant formerly known as the "Palace of Culture" after the gang burst in during the Russian musical "Nord-Ost" ("North-East").

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.

The U.N. Security Council on Thursday unanimously condemned the hostage-taking in Moscow and demanded the "immediate and unconditional release" of all the hostages.

The resolution urged other nations to cooperate with the Russian authorities to help track down the perpetrators and sponsors of the attack and bring them to justice.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said the hostage situation was "formulated abroad" by "the same criminals who have terrorised Chechnya for many years," according to Russia's Interfax news agency. (Putin analysis)

"The main goal of our law enforcement agencies and special services in planning measures is aimed at freeing the hostages with the maximum ensurance of their safety," he said.

Putin has cancelled his planned trip to the APEC summit in Mexico next week, the Kremlin said.

Russian Special Forces soldiers take up positions around the theatre
Russian Special Forces soldiers take up positions around the theatre

Child heart specialist Maria Shkolnikova told Reuters by mobile phone: "A huge amount of explosives have been laid through the place." (Eyewitness accounts)

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

The rebels freed around 150 hostages soon after taking over the theatre, including up to 20 children and a number of Muslims. They released a handful more Thursday morning including three children and a middle-aged British man.

Three Germans were among those being held, according to the German Embassy in Moscow. The British Embassy said as many as three Britons were also among the hostages.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow said a man called Thursday saying he is American and is being held in the theatre along with his fiancÚ and their child. State Department officials confirmed there are two Americans among the hostages.

President George W. Bush called Putin to offer support at "a time of solidarity between the United States and Russia," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

An armoured personnel carrier was parked in a lane near the theatre, along with six trucks full of Interior Ministry troops, all in helmets and armed. Some wore masks. Crowds of relatives waited outside the theatre for news.

"It's a nightmare," Yekaterina Ostankhova, a woman in her 70s whose 19-year-old grandson, a theatre decorator, was inside, told Reuters. "What's next? This is the capital of all places. I've come here and I've heard nothing. I'm just standing here. I would be willing to go inside, even if they kill me."

Russia has fought on and off since 1994 to quell the revolt in Chechnya, which costs lives daily among troops and civilians. (Background)

Putin's decision as a politically inexperienced prime minister in October 1999 to order troops back into Chechnya helped to catapult him into the Kremlin.

The hostage-taking is the most audacious Chechen attack since the first Chechen war of 1994 to 1996.

In 1995, about 120 people were killed after rebels seized a hospital in the southern Russian town of Budennovsk. Elite Alpha anti-terrorist forces of the Federal Security Service (FSB -- formerly the KGB) failed to rescue the hostages.

The 250-strong Alpha force has been positioned outside the theatre during the present stand-off.

Mark Harris, of the London-based Control Risks Group, a business consultancy operation, said both the hostages and the hostage-takers will feel the psychological and physical strain of their situation as each hour goes by. (Pressures)



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