Moscow, Oct. 25 (Reuters): Several hundred hostages in a Moscow theatre were living on the edge 48 hours after their capture amid warnings that the Chechen guerrillas holding them would start killing any time now.
With the building laden with explosives and a bomb placed at the centre of the hall, fear for the lives of the 700 hundred hostages hung heavy on President Vladimir Putin, who went on national television to say he was open to talks with the guerrillas, but on his terms.
“We are open to any kind of contacts,” a sombre Putin said in his second television address since Wednesday’s attack.
Earlier, the government pledged not to kill the guerrillas if they freed all their captives.
“We are holding and will keep holding talks.... If all hostages are released, the terrorists will be guaranteed their lives,” Nikolai Patrushev, the head of Russia’s security service FSB, said after meeting Putin.
But a Russian negotiator said the rebels would start killing the hostages later tonight if their demands were not met. The Chechens want Russian forces out of their homeland.
“The situation is becoming difficult. If representatives of the authorities do not go in, I cannot exclude — according to our information — that at 10 pm (1800 GMT) the terrorists will start shooting the hostages,” the negotiator told a TV channel.
Other officials who attended talks with the Chechens, however, said the atmosphere at the negotiating table had not worsened. A Kremlin official said the talks were moving forward “slowly but surely”.
The Chechen “suicide squad”, which has threatened to blow up the building if security forces storm it, freed four hostages tonight after releasing eight children and seven others separately earlier in the day.
The siege dealt a blow to Putin, whose meteoric rise to power was built largely on his decision to send troops back into breakaway Chechnya in southern Russia in October 1999.
Putin said for talks to start past conditions stand: that separatists lay down their weapons. Moscow also rejects any idea of independence for Chechnya.
Conditions have been growing grimmer by the hour inside the theatre where the hostages use the orchestra pit as a toilet and supplies of food and medicines are low.
“Many are suffering from stress. Can anyone imagine living under those conditions'” Dr Leonid Roshal, the chairman of the International Committee for Paediatric Disasters who spent some six hours in the theatre, said.
“They don’t know whether the troops will storm the building, whether they will be shot or not....They don’t know what is going to happen,” he said, adding that officials were trying to get in medical supplies, toilet paper and food.
A woman being held inside the theatre said the hostages’ nerves were at breaking point.
“It feels like something bad is hanging in the air,” Anna Andrianova told a radio station. “People are starting feeling very bad.”
A TV channel broadcast a film showing the man behind the attack, Movsar Barayev. Guerrillas accompanying Barayev, including two black-clad hooded women, were armed with AK-47 assault rifles and pistols. Ammunition pouches and grenades swung from their belts.
Theatre spokeswoman Yelena Malyonkina said: “There is a big bomb in the centre of the hall. The stage is mined as well as all the passageways. Fifteen guerrillas who are covered with explosives are on duty in the hall. They watch all possible directions from which a storming of the building may start.”