Forty armed Chechen rebels are still holding around 700 people hostage in a Moscow theatre that the gunmen raided on Oct. 23 during the performance of a popular musical. Latest reports include two large explosions, at least one death and accounts that the theatre has been heavily mined by the terrorists.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has canceled planned trips to Germany, Portugal and Mexico, said "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."
The men entered at the beginning of the second act of Nord-Ost, a popular Russian musical based on Veniamin Kaverin's novel, "Two Captains." They wore camouflage uniforms and ran onstage firing their weapons. Russian officials said 30 of the rebels were already planted in the audience and quickly joined the new intruders.
CNN reported that demands were made for "an end to the war," in Chechnya. In 1999, Putin sent Russian troops back into the Russian province of Chechnya, where a previous war had ended in 1996. Since then, Chechen rebels have regularly staged terrorist bombings and shootings, killing hundreds.
Following the seige, the theatre—the House of Culture on Melnikov Street— was quickly surrounded by Russian security forces, as well as interior ministry troops, police dogs and snipers. Trolley buses block the surrounding streets. Gunmen initially allowed theatregoers to make calls on their on cell phones. Children were released. Later, Muslim audience members were allowed to go. Also released was a pregnant woman. On Oct. 24, the body of a woman was removed from the building. According to one report, she may have been shot by a rebel.
Hostages speaking on cell phones to Russian radio stations said the gunmen had threatened to kill 20 people for every rebel wounded by police. A woman who escaped the theatre said the Chechens were beating people, leaving blood in the corridors. The account of the mining came from the hostage-takers themselves.
Member of foreign embassies and the International Red Cross are currently negotiating for the release of remaining children and foreigners. Among the theatregoers are two Americans, as well as citizens of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Australia and Britain.
It is believed 711 tickets were sold for the performance. The show features roughly 100 actors and crew. The theatre can hold 1,163.
More than 350,000 people have seen the popular show.
Meanwhile, in another part of town, the American company that is presenting a staging of 42nd Street, is fine and continuing their own performances, American producer Randy Buck told Playbill On-Line Oct. 24.
Security had already been in place for the run of 42nd Street, but now it has been "beefed up," Buck said.
"It's going to be more substantial," he said, adding the MDM Theater, where his show is playing, is in a very active area with a bowling alley, McDonald's, internet cafe and more. 42nd Street had already ended and the cast had left its theatre by the time news was spreading about the hostage situation.
Buck speculated that the terrorists don't want to pick a fight with the U.S., but are targeting Russian policy specifically, which is why they chose the folkloric Russian work.
42nd Street, the first American musical comedy with an American company to play Moscow, is expected to continue to June 2003.
—By Robert Simonson
and Kenneth Jones