| A female terrorist lies dead inside the Moscow theatre. (Reuters)
Moscow, Oct. 26 (Reuters): A single blast ripped through the damp dawn, shattering the silence and heralding the end of three days of humiliation, threat and fear for the hostages held in a Moscow theatre.
Gunshots echoed round high-rise residential blocks nearby and minutes later scores of Russian special-force troops streamed into the modern concrete building, past piles of explosives, abandoned food packages and shattered glass.
Within 40 minutes, there was only silence.
The guerrillas were dead. Most of their over 700 captives escaped with their lives. Hostages seen by a Reuters photographer were carried out, apparently unconscious from a gas pumped into the vast hall to knock out the Chechen guerrillas. The nation breathed a sigh of relief.
Russian television footage from inside the theatre showed female hostage-takers slumped lifelessly in the padded red chairs of the auditorium, their faces covered in black scarves, packs of apparent explosives still strapped to their stomachs.
Two of rebel mastermind Movsar Barayev’s guerrillas lay sprawled in the corridor in combat gear.
“I saw dead terrorists. I myself saw Barayev, an Afghan and an Arab,” said Moscow deputy mayor Valery Shantsev outside the theatre, where musical lovers had gathered on Wednesday to watch Nord-Ost (North-East)
Hostages, some unconscious and others too exhausted to walk or drag themselves from the featureless building south-east of the city centre, were helped out by camouflaged servicemen through a floor carpeted in bodies and broken glass.
“All those alive, those who were wounded, have been taken out. I don’t know how many are dead, many are unconscious,” said an interior ministry official. “There were hostages everywhere, upstairs, downstairs.”
A girl in bright red evening wear, her blonde head thrown back, was carried out by rescuers. Another woman, too stunned to move, simply slumped by a column, her head in her hands. Others, shocked and exhausted, piled into city buses, their arms around each other, seeking support.
“When we came into the auditorium we saw one man lying on the floor with a smashed skull, clearly dead,” rescuer Vadim Mikhailov said.
”One woman we were unable to save, but we rescued about five people, mostly girls. One of them just kept asking for her mother.”
Dozens of ambulances poured toward the site, sirens screaming as they drove through stunned crowds and rows of heavily armed interior ministry troops.
“All the parents were of the same opinion that the storming would be absolutely unacceptable. It's like a mystery, like a miracle for us. We were amazed that this could happen like this, without (many) victims,” said the father of one girl.