| Hostage Maria Shkolnikova leaves the theatre building. (AFP)
Moscow, Oct. 24 (Reuters): Cold War rivals found themselves both victims of terrorism when Chechen separatist guerrillas today threatened to shoot or blow up 700 hostages in a Moscow theatre unless Russia pulled its troops out of their homeland.
The group of about 40, including masked women with explosives strapped to their bodies, burst in on Wednesday night firing into the air and shouting “Stop the war in Chechnya”.
A radio station quoted child heart specialist Maria Shkolnikova as telling it from inside the theatre: “They are saying ‘You have been sitting here for 10 hours and your government has done nothing to secure your release’.”
“The main thing is that troops must be pulled out or they will start shooting people.”
Earlier, Shkolnikova told Reuters: “A huge amount of explosives have been laid through the place.”
Officials said some 60 foreigners were among the captives. At least one hostage, a woman of around 20, is dead. Grenades were fired at two other women who fled the captors.
Thirteen months after the suicide plane-strikes in New York and Washington, the terrorist threat obliterated old divisions between the US and Russia with the Moscow strike. Since September 11, terrorists have now made major strikes on three continents — North America, Asia (Bali in Indonesia) and Europe.
“This is a time of solidarity between the United States and Russia,” a White House spokesman said, disclosing that President George W. Bush had called his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
“He (Bush) said the United States was prepared to help Russia with whatever Russia needed,” the spokesman added.
Putin, who rose to power on pledges three years ago to clamp down on the decade-old rebellion on Russia’s southern fringe and boost public security, said the main task was to secure the hostages’ safe release.
He said information from the rebels’ representatives confirmed that “the terrorist act was planned abroad”.
The Chechen news website www.kavkaz.org reported what it said was a statement by the attackers’ commander, Movsar Barayev.
“There’s more than a thousand people here. No one will get out of here alive and they’ll die with us if there’s any attempt to storm the building,” the website quoted him saying.
He called on Putin to stop the war and pull his troops out of Chechnya if he wanted to save the hostages’ lives.
The attack presented Putin with his sternest test since becoming President more than two years ago. He has taken an uncompromising stand on the conflict in largely-Muslim Chechnya, where the Kremlin has twice launched military pushes to crush separatists.
The rebels freed around 150 hostages soon after taking over the theatre, including up to 20 children and a number of Muslims. They released a handful more this morning, including three children.
But Iosif Kobzon, a member of parliament and entertainer who was taking part in negotiations, told Interfax news agency: “When I asked them to free others, they said they had already let the three smallest ones go and would release no one else.”
Another negotiator, liberal deputy Irina Khakamada, headed to the Kremlin to see Putin after meeting the guerrillas.
One Russian official said the guerrillas called themselves a suicide squad, or “smertniki”.
Several shooting incidents were reported in different parts of the five-storey theatre, a modern building about 4 km southeast of the Kremlin, after the gang burst in during the second act of the Russian musical “Nord-Ost” (“North-East”).
“They have grenades and they have guns,” Moscow city police chief spokesman Valery Gribakin said.
Two journalists freed from the theatre said the group’s leader had threatened to kill 10 people an hour if his demands were not met.