In a strange and bitter turn to the Moscow hostage crisis of last week, it now appears that all but one of the more than 100 civilian deaths which occurred when Russian forces stormed the Moscow theatre held by Chechen rebels in the early hours of Saturday, Oct. 26, are attributable to the gas that was pumped into the building before the raid.
The death toll has risen to 117, the New York Times reported. Only one person died of gun wounds, the Moscow health committee said. Fifty of the gunmen died as well. The hostage-takers had trapped more than 750 theatregoers in the auditorium.
Russian authorities are saying little about their seige tactics or the nature of the "killer gas," as the Moscow daily Kommersant called it, despite a request from the United States to name the gas used.
Hundreds of surviving hostage remain hospitalized in 14 different hospitals, 145 of them in intensive care, presenting the possibility that the death toll will go higher. Of two Americans caught in the standoff, only one has been found.
Initial reports had Russian troops rushing into the theatre after the gunmen began making good on a threat to begin executing the hostages held inside. That account now appears to have been false. According to the Times, Russian forces planned the Oct. 26 raid as early as last Wednesday and even ran a drill the day before the theatre was reclaimed. The Chechens had Oct. 25 set a deadline of 10 PM for a meeting with a representative of Russian president Vladimir V. Putin. Throughout, the hostage-takers had demanded an end to the war in Chechnya as a condition for the hostages' safety. 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.
Moscow newspaper accounts related that rebels died from the gas and were then shot by snipers while unconscious. Many of the rebels were women armed with explosives.
The gunmen raided the theatre—the House of Culture on Melnikov Street— on Oct. 23 during the performance of a popular musical. Putin canceled planned trips to Germany, Portugal and Mexico to see out the crisis.
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.
Various reports painted a demoralizing picture inside the theatre just before the raid, with food and drink supplies dwindling, hostages becoming increasingly frantic, burst water pipes and a corner of the orchestra pit converted into a bathroom.
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. Additional people were released as late as Friday.
Meanwhile, in another part of town, the American company that is presenting a staging of 42nd Street, was 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 first day of the hostage situation.
Buck speculated that the terrorists didn't want to pick a fight with the U.S., but targeted 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