Separatists bring war to the centre of Moscow

Theatre audience watches in horror as heavily armed Chechen rebels storm building and threaten to blow it up if police attack
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The Independent Online

Moscow was in shock last night as gunmen, claiming to be Chechen separatists, brought their war to a theatre in the centre of the capital.

Moscow was in shock last night as gunmen, claiming to be Chechen separatists, brought their war to a theatre in the centre of the capital.

The second act of Russia's first Broadway-style musical Nord-Ost, which had been playing to packed houses, was about to begin when armed men and women in camouflage arrived in Jeeps and stormed the building.

One fired into the ceiling and threw a grenade, shouting: "Release Chechnya and Russia from Russians. Stop the warin Chechnya."

The audience, who minutes earlier had been enjoying the theatrical extravaganza, watch-ed in horror as the masked men and women came in. One gunman ordered all the actors into the front rows.

"Some women were strap-ped with explosives and they said they would blow up the whole building in 10 minutes if the police started to storm the building," one released hostage said. A woman who managedto make her way out of the theatre said men wearing camouflage went on stage, fired in the air and said: "Don't you understand what's going on? We are Chechens."

Russian news agencies cited a Chechen rebel website as saying the group was led by Movsar Barayev, the nephew of warlord Arbi Barayev, who was reportedly killed last year. The website said some of the female hostage-takers were the widows of rebels killed in fighting.

Shooting was heard in different parts of the five-storey theatre after the gang burst in. A Russian news agency reported that the armed men were laying mines around the theatre. Some of the audience, among them Muslims, women and children were released by the hostage-takers. Others escaped, with one actress jumping from a third-floor window.

Relatives gathered outside the theatre, a former Soviet-era House of Culture. One woman said her daughter and two grand-daughters were inside. "My daughter managed to speak to me on the phone, literally three words. Then they took their phones away. I just don't know what happened."

Another grandmother tried to get through a police cordon saying: "Let me through. My children are inside."

As hundreds of heavily armed special forces and police took up positions around the theatre, President Vladimir Putin went to the Kremlin for a crisis meeting with senior security chiefs and his Prime Minister, Mikhail Kasyanov.

He was due to leave today for visits to Germany and Portugal and then travel on to talks with President George Bush.

A spokesman for Moscow's police chief said the militants were demanding that the Russian authorities, "resolve the situation in the Chechen republic". Two leading members of the Chechen community entered the theatre in an effort to begin negotiations with the hostage-takers. Aslanbek Aslakhanov, the deputy who represents Chechnya in the lower house of parliament, was accompanied by Ruslan Khasbulatov, a former speaker of the parliament. Both men have experience of dealing with hostage situations.

Russia has been fighting on and off for more than eight years to quell a separatist rebellion in Chechnya and it is still costing lives daily among Russian troops and civilians in the North Caucasus territory.

Last night's incident would be the most audacious attack by the rebels since the first Chechen war of 1994 to 1996.