Moscow Theater Takeover


Russian special forces storm the Dubrovka Theater during the 2002 Moscow hostage crisis.

October 23, 2002

Overview: Chechen terrorists became more brazen during the late 1990s and early 2000s, refusing to buckle in the wake of massive crackdowns against them by the Moscow regime. Attacking planes, subways, apartment complexes, and government officials, the Chechen rebels posed the greatest terrorist threat to the Russian regime since the breakup of the Soviet Union. An especially daring attack took place in the heart of Moscow in October 2002, when Chechens resurrected an attack type rarely seen in the 2000s—a large-scale barricade-and-hostage operation with a laundry list of demands posed to the authorities. Exceptionally long and fanciful names designed to sow confusion and fear were trotted out by various self-appointed terrorist spokesmen. A bungled Russian rescue attempt left 170 people dead, sparking a firestorm of internal and international protests regarding the government’s handling of the incident and of the rebellion in general. Russian attempts to equate the Chechens to al Qaeda’s depredations, despite evidence of links between the two groups, fell on deaf ears.

Incident: On October 23, 2002, at 9:00 P.M., scores of masked Chechen gunmen and women armed with automatic weapons took over a Moscow theater on the corner of Dobrovskaya and Melnikova, holding nearly 900 people hostage. About 100 people escaped in the initial attack; another 46 were freed in stages. The House of Culture for the State Ball-Bearing Factory theater was showing a popular musical, NordOst (Northeast). The terrorists demanded that Russian troops leave Chechnya within a week and end the war in the separatist region. They threatened to kill all the hostages if their demands were not met. At least one and perhaps two hostages were killed and two wounded in the initial assault by the gunmen, who had grenades strapped to their bodies. The Chechens said they were holding 650 people after having released 150. They claimed to have placed land mines around the theater’s perimeter.

Tatyana Solnishkina, an orchestra member, used her cell phone to say that the rebels were threatening to kill 10 hostages if one of them was harmed. The news media quoted her as saying that the terrorists had explosives.

Alevtina Popva, an actress, escaped from backstage, and told the news media that the terrorists were chanting like kamikazes. She and some colleagues used curtains and scarves to climb out windows. Terrorists later fired rocket-propelled grenades at two teen girls who were attempting to run to safety, injuring a Russian soldier.

Rebel Abu Said claimed that the rebels were all shahids (Arabic for martyr). An Interfax reporter called from his cell phone to say that the rebels claimed membership in the Suicide Commandos of the 29th Division.

The rebels separated the men and women, and later separated out the foreign citizens into a third group. Some Muslim audience members were permitted to leave.

Several children were freed by the rebels. One boy said that his mother and sister were still being held, as were dozens of other children.

The hostages included citizens of the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Australia, France, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Israel, and the Netherlands. At least 3 Americans, a Russian with a U.S. green card, and 70 other foreigners were being held.

President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin said that the attack was planned by foreign forces and was connected with the attacks in Bali and the Philippines. A police source said that the rebels were contacting accomplices in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

Aslan Maskhadov, former president of Chechnya, denied involvement with the hostage-takers, blaming a splinter faction with links to Muslim terrorists. Al Jazeera played a tape that showed the hostage-takers in front of an Arabic-language banner. A Chechen website said the attackers were led by Movsar Barayev, 25, nephew of Arbi Barayev, a Chechen rebel leader who died in 2001. The younger Barayev said he headed a group of Islamic radicals he called the Islamic Special Purpose Regiment of the Chechen State Defense Committee (Majlis al-Shura) with 400 active fighters and as many in reserve. His second-in-command was Abu Bakr. Al Jazeera later said the group was the Sabotage and Military Surveillance Group of the Riyadh al-Salikhin Martyrs (aka the Riyadus-Salikhin Reconnaissance and Sabotage Battalion of the Chechen Martyrs). A group member said in a recorded statement, “Our demands are stopping the war and withdrawal of Russian forces. We are implementing the operation by order of the military commander of the Chechen Republic.”

The State Department said that the attack was by three groups:

The Islamic International Peacekeeping Brigade: It was established in 1998 by Shamil Basayev, who led the group with Saudi-born Ibn al-Khattab until the latter’s death in March 2002. Arab mujahideen leader Abu al-Walid had since taken over al-Khattab’s position.

The Riyadus-Salikhin Reconnaissance and Sabotage Battalion of Chechen Martyrs (Requirements for Getting into Paradise), also led by Shamil Basayev.

The Special Purpose Islamic Regiment, led by Movzar Barayev, who died in the attack. Leadership was picked up by a Chechen who used the alias Khamzat.

Singer and politician Yosif Kobzon, the Duma member from Chechnya, claimed he had established communications with the hostage-takers, and was going to negotiate with the gunmen. Kobzon, accompanied by a Red Cross representative, was permitted into the theater and obtained the release of five hostages after 1:30 P.M. on October 24, 2002. They included a sick Briton in his fifties or sixties, a woman, and three children. During Kobzon’s second visit, he was accompanied by parliamentarian Irina Khakamada. The terrorists refused to free anyone else, saying that they did not want to deal with intermediaries, only with decisionmakers. Parliamentarian Grigory Yavlinsky was permitted inside the theater later that day, as was another group of negotiators. Other negotiators included Sergei Govorukhin, a film director; U.S. ambassador Alexander Vershbow;

Duma member for Chechnya Aslanbek Aslakhanov; journalist Anna Politkovskaya; and former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov. Another two hostages fled at 6:30 P.M.

During one visit, Kobzon was accompanied by Mark Franchetti of the Sunday Times of London, who interviewed the rebel leader.

On October 26, 2002, the Chechens freed seven more hostages at 6:00 A.M. At noon, eight children were freed.

A male hostage threw a bottle at a Chechen woman and charged her. She shot him dead, along with a nearby woman.

On October 25, 2002, the Chechens called for antiwar demonstrations in Red Square. That day, the rebels released 19 hostages, including some children.

The terrorists refused to improve the conditions of the hostages, who were starving and who had to use the orchestra pit as a toilet.

On October 26, 2002, in the early morning, the terrorists reportedly killed two male hostages and wounded a man and a woman. The hostages had attempted to escape, but only two made it. The sound of gunfire and explosions was heard at 3:30 A.M., when Russian Special Forces raided the theater in a battle that led to the deaths of 42 rebels, including rebel leader Movsar Barayev and 18 female suicide bombers with explosives strapped to their stomachs, and 117 hostages who were killed by the incapacitating gas used by the rescue force. Some of the women were shot. A man with head wounds and a woman with stomach injuries were taken away by ambulance. Several rebels were captured. Most of the freed hostages were hospitalized due to the effects of the gas that was pumped into the ventilation system. Russian soldiers refused to identify the gas, even to the attending physicians. At least 600 hostages were treated for bullet wounds and gas inhalation. The gas came in so quickly that the terrorists did not have time to put on their gas masks. Pentagon sources suggested that the gas was opium-based. Other U.S. doctors suggested it was fentanyl, an opiate derivative. Still others said it was an aerosol form of carfentanil, a potent narcotic used to sedate big game animals, or halothane, an inhalational anesthetic used in surgery for 50 years.

Among the dead hostages were 115 Russians, an American, an Azerbaijani, a Dutch citizen, 2 Ukrainians, an Armenian, an Austrian, a Kazakh, and a Belarussian.

On October 28, 2002, the Russians arrested a pair of Chechens in connection with the attack.

On October 29, 2002, Denmark arrested Akhmed Zakayev, an aide to Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov, for possible involvement in the attack. He was held until November 12, 2002, pending investigation. He had been attending the final session of the World Chechen Congress in Copenhagen. Russian officials detained dozens of possible accomplices.

On January 25, 2003, the theater officially reopened after $2.5 million in renovations, including a new security system with metal detectors, a new audio system, and new orchestra pit. Elsewhere, Russian police detained three Chechens in Penza, 310 miles southeast of Moscow, on suspicion of involvement in the attack.

Nord-Ost reopened on February 8, 2003.

In June 2003, Zaurbek Talkhigov was sentenced to eight and one half years for tipping off terrorists about police attempts to rescue the hostages.

By July 17, 2003, 793 former hostages and families of the 129 dead hostages were having a difficult time seeking redress in Russian courts. The 135 former hostages or family members who had agreed to sue were represented by Attorney Igor Trunov. As of that date, Russian courts had rejected 35 of the 65 lawsuits filed against the state. On July 28, 2003, a Moscow court rejected appeals in 21 compensation cases; attorneys argued that the law applies only to material damages for loss of income.

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