Russian forces stormed the Moscow theatre held by Chechen rebels in the early hours of Saturday, Oct. 26, after the gunmen began making good on a threat to begin executing the nearly 700 hostages held inside.
Reports of the casualties said between 60 and 70 members of the audience were killed by the Chechens. Russian troops in turn killed 50 rebels, including the leader, one Mosvar Barayev.
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 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.
The gunmen raided the theatre 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.
The hour of 10 PM came and went on Friday night without the Kremlin having sent someone to talk to the gunmen. Gunfire and explosions emerged from the theatre—the House of Culture on Melnikov Street—at 3:30 AM Saturday. The Chechens had claimed to have laced the building with mines.
Various reports painted a demoralizing picture inside the theatre, 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.
Negotiations were held with the rebels throughout the seige, conducted by such disparate parties as member of foreign embassies and the International Red Cross, politicians, reporters and celebrities. Among the theatregoers held were two Americans, as well as citizens of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Australia and Britain.
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