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Doctor becomes voice of victims

Moscow, Oct. 24 (Reuters): When Russian heart specialist Maria Shkolnikova stepped out of a cold, wet Moscow night and shook off her coat in a warm theatre she thought she was in for an evening of light-hearted musical entertainment.

Little did she realise that just hours later she was to take a lead role in a real-life and altogether blacker drama.

Hundreds of theatre-goers were settling back in their seats replete with champagne and caviar to enjoy the second act of Nord-Ost (North-East) — the heroic musical tale of a Russian Arctic explorer — when yesterday’s performance took an unexpected turn and turned an evening-out into a nightmare.

As the show resumed, a gang of armed people, some in masks and some with explosives strapped to them, stormed the packed five-storey theatre in southeastern Moscow and one man fired a round of bullets into the ceiling. According to a witness who was later released, the man then forced the actors to sit down in the front rows. “Some women were strapped with explosives and they said they would blow up the whole building in 10 minutes if they (police) started to storm the building,” teenager Denis Afanasyev said.

He told Russian television that the armed gang wanted “the war to be stopped”, a clear reference to the grinding separatist war in Russia’s mainly Muslim Chechnya province.

Afanasyev said the initial assault by the hostage takers was followed by sporadic shooting in a corner of the main hall, on one of the balconies and behind the stage.

The rebels released about 150 hostages soon after taking over the theatre, including up to 20 children and some Muslims. Some others escaped through windows backstage.

Children’s heart doctor Shkolnikova, who was among the up to 700 people being held inside the building, began to emerge as the human face of the crisis which is dominating shocked conversations in homes, bars and cafes across Moscow.

Later today, she was shown on Russian television being bundled into a dark blue car with tinted windows after coming out of the theatre for the second time to read a statement from the hostages.

But in the early hours today a woman who did not give her name rang up Reuters and gave a reporter two mobile phone numbers, one of which was eventually answered by Shkolnikova.

In a shaky, but calm voice Shkolnikova — a bespectacled woman with short cropped hair — told Reuters the rebels had fastened explosives in passageways, on seats and even to hostages themselves.

“A huge amount of explosives have been laid through the place,” the doctor said. The call was cut off after several minutes. She later appealed, again by mobile phone, to the international community to intervene in the standoff.

As the drama stretched towards its second day and a first round of talks between the guerrillas and Russian negotiators proved fruitless, it seemed the rebels had chosen the doctor as their unofficial envoy to the outside world.

In a strained and tired voice she told Ekho Moskvy radio the Chechens had threatened to shoot their hostages if authorities did not pull the military out of Chechnya. “They are saying — ‘You have been sitting here for 10 hours and your government has done nothing to secure your release’,” Shkolnikova said. “The main thing is that troops must be pulled out or they will start shooting people.”

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