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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Armed Chechens Seize Moscow Theater

APSpecial forces and Interior Ministry troops taking up positions around the theater, which was seized Wednesday by a group of armed men during a performance of "Nord-Ost."
About 30 to 50 armed Chechens seized a Moscow theater Wednesday night and took an audience of some 700 people hostage, FSB officials and witnesses said.

The Chechens demanded that federal troops pull out of Chechnya immediately, witnesses said.

Interfax and Russian television, citing rebel web site, reported the attackers belong to a group headed by Movsar Barayev, a nephew of slain Chechen field commander Arbi Barayev. The web site could no longer be accessed in Moscow late Wednesday night.

Movsar Barayev has been reported killed several times during the ongoing Chechnya military campaign, most recently 10 days ago during Russian bombing raids.

Barayev was quoted by as saying that the gunmen arrived in Moscow "to die, not survive" and that 40 Chechen widows are participating in the attack, Interfax reported.

A hostage released at 1 a.m. said there were a number of women among the attackers.

Aslanbek Aslakhanov, the State Duma deputy from Chechnya, entered the theater late Wednesday night to negotiate with the attackers.

"I am ready to give my life so that not one Muscovite is hurt," Aslakhanov was quoted by Interfax as saying. "I would like to tell the hostage-takers that this brings peace no closer to Chechen soil, it only worsens the situation in the republic. And I am afraid that this event may lead to an explosion of anti-Chechen and anti-Caucasian sentiment in Moscow."

The theater, a former house of culture owned by State Ball-Bearing Plant No. 1 near Proletarskaya metro station, was staging a performance of the popular musical "Nord-Ost."

The gunmen were laying mines in the theater, according to relatives of those trapped inside. Spectators were allowed to use their cellphones to call their families for a few hours after the gunmen seized the theater at 9 p.m.

An Interfax reporter attending the musical said the men claimed to have wired the building with explosives and were calling themselves "the suicide troops from the 29th Division."

Scores of police and elite Alpha troops sealed off the building and nearby streets by 10:30 p.m. as they put operation "Thunderstorm" into action. Parked around the theater were at least two armored personnel carriers, 20 police cars, five fire trucks and a handful of ambulances. A cold drizzle was falling, and power was cut to lights around the theater, leaving the area dark.

By 1 a.m., about 150 spectators had been released or escaped from the building, TVS television reported, citing Moscow police. The channel said two Germans, a father and daughter, remained inside.

A Moscow Times reporter saw a dozen troops in riot gear and carrying rifles run up to the theater at about midnight. Ekho Moskvy radio reported that the troops penetrated the building but then retreated.

Misha Japaridze / AP

Armed officers standing on guard at the theater near Proletarskaya metro station.

TVS said the hostage-takers had threatened to kill 10 spectators for every one of their own who died.

Members of the Chechen diaspora said they were ready to offer themselves as hostages, according to Russian television.

There were no reports of casualties at 1 a.m.

Radio Mayak quoted a source with the Moscow rescue services as saying that the gunmen had shot and thrown a grenade at a special forces group. The special forces had managed to build a ladder outside the building to help rescue actors from dressing rooms.

The gunmen seized the theater just as the second act began, shooting automatic weapons into the air, said a "Nord-Ost" costume designer who managed to escape with a group of her colleagues through a third-floor window.

The woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said costume designers were in a wing off the main stage and heard a loud noise as if a stage light had exploded.

She looked into the main hall and saw men in masks firing guns into the air.

She and her associates ran up to the third floor and climbed out of a window.

Maria Shyorstova, who plays Katya, the hero's girlfriend in "Nord-Ost," said by telephone that she and other actors on stage and in the wings were able to lock themselves in the dressing rooms. By 11 p.m., they had crawled out of the windows to safety.

"We're OK," she said of the actors and crew who had escaped. "Those who were sitting in the audience are still there."

Local media said children, Muslims and foreigners who could show their passports were allowed to leave the building. The reports could not be confirmed.

President Vladimir Putin called an urgent meeting with Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and other top officials in the Kremlin.

Alexei Volin, the deputy head of Kasyanov's administration, told Ekho Moskvy that it was important to negotiate with the gunmen but not to give them any concessions. He said the FSB had made contact with the gunmen.

Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and General Prosecutor Vladimir Ustinov were among top politicians who rushed to the theater. The Kremlin's spokesman on Chechnya, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, was also at the scene.

"This is a serious terrorist attack," State Duma Deputy Yury Shchekochikhin said in an interview outside the theater, adding that he believed the gunmen were acting on their own.

Shchekochikhin met earlier this year with Akhmed Zakayev, an envoy to Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, in Liechtenstein to try to find a way to get out of the stalemate over Chechnya.

Worried relatives and onlookers milled around the 500-meter perimeter around the theater.

Gleb Bauer, an 11-year-old actor in "Nord-Ost," said he and his mother were walking past the theater at about 9 p.m. when they heard a loud explosion. His family lives nearby, and Wednesday was his night off.

"I should have been on stage just about that time, but for some reason I wasn't," he said, glancing around from side to side with evident distress.

The performance in the 1,163-seat hall started at 7 p.m. and was to have finished at 10:30 p.m. "Nord-Ost," which is based on the novel "Two Captains" by Veniamin Kaverin, debuted in Moscow last fall.