| A woman has a tear wiped from her face as she waits for information on her brother who was one of the hostages. (Reuters)
Moscow, Oct. 26 (Reuters): Russian special forces, using gas to knock out Chechen guerrillas, stormed a Moscow theatre today in a dawn raid that left dozens of hostages dead along with most of their rebel captors.
More than 750 people, held since Wednesday by the heavily armed Muslim guerrillas, were rescued, deputy interior minister Vladimir Vasilyev said. He put the initial death toll among the captives at 67. But Russian news agencies later quoted the health ministry as saying that more than 90 hostages had died.
Nearly all the rebels were killed — 50, including 18 women, according to FSB security service officials. A local radio station said three were widows of Chechen guerrilla leaders.
President Vladimir Putin went on national television in the evening to ask forgiveness for the deaths, blaming the rebel attack on international terrorism which the world has to fight.
“We have not been able to save all. Forgive us,” a solemn Putin said, calling terrorism a “strong and dangerous, inhuman and cruel enemy”.
Russian officials insisted they had no choice but to launch today’s assault after rebels started killing hostages.
“We saved more than 750 people,” Vasilyev said outside the theatre where a popular musical had been brutally interrupted.
A doctor from Moscow’s main emergency hospital said he was treating 42 patients for gas poisoning.
“We have only been given general information that it was an incapacitating or calming agent but we do not know specifically the nature of the substance,” US ambassador Alexander Vershbow said. All 75 foreigners, three of them American, were rescued.
The government neither specified the type of gas used nor was there a clear explanation of how so many people died. Reporters outside the theatre heard both gunfire and explosions.
“You ask me if we used gas or not. Well, I am authorised to say that special means were used,” Vasilyev said. “That allowed us... to neutralise the kamikaze women who were strapped with explosives and held their fingers on the detonators.”
The end of the siege, thrusting ordinary Muscovites into the frontline of the distant Chechen war, was a relief to Putin, who owed his rise to power partly to a hard line against the Chechens. His authority had been sorely tested.
But it left the chances for peace in the southern frontier region seemingly as distant as ever after eight years of war. “I see no change in Russian policy in Chechnya, maybe even it will be more tragic,” said Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent political and military analyst.“The rebels will get more entrenched, that means there will be new terrorist attacks, maybe much bloodier than this one, maybe also in Moscow.”
Amateur video showed troops rushing into the southeast Moscow theatre to the bursting sounds of grenades and automatic fire and flashes of tracer bullets. Some later came out along a corridor carrying bodies.
Another soldier could be seen drinking what looked like a beer. None of them was wearing a gas mask but some smashed windows and pulled open curtains as they went in.
Officials said troops forced their way into the theatre after rebels executed two hostages to press their demand that Russia pull its troops out of their homeland.
An Interfax news agency reporter, who was among the hostages, said a man and a woman were killed this morning. “The man was shot in the eye and there was a lot of blood,” journalist Olga Chernyak was quoted as saying. “I thought then that we would all be killed.”