| Relatives of injured hostages catch a glimpse of their loved ones through the windows of Moscow’s hospital number 13 on Sunday. (AFP)
Moscow, Oct. 27 (Reuters): A tantrum by a frightened little boy prompted Chechen guerrillas to open fire in the Moscow theatre where they held hundreds of hostages, sparking a raid by Russian special forces, a survivor said.
Olga Chernyak, a reporter with the news agency Interfax, had gone to the Melnikova Street theatre on Wednesday night to see a popular Russian musical. But as the second act got underway a “suicide squad” of some 50 Chechen guerrillas stormed the building just a few kilometres from the Kremlin, starting the most dramatic hostage crisis in modern Russian history.
But on the third night of captivity, with tensions inside the theatre rising as conditions became ever more squalid, one young boy in a rear seat snapped, said Chernyak. He threw a bottle at the guerrillas and ran down the aisle.
“He dashed towards the exit, shouting: ‘Mummy, I don’t know what to do.’ They opened fire on him, but missed and hit seated people instead,” she told Russian television from her hospital bed late yesterday.
“They hit a guy in the eye. There was a lot of blood, bubbling blood. And a girl was hit in the side. Then they told us: ‘Don’t worry. Everything’s all right’,” she said.
Hearing the gunfire, commanders of hundreds of elite storm troopers who had surrounded the theatre believed the guerrillas had acted on a threat to start shooting hostages if demands for a Russian troop withdrawal from Chechnya were ignored.
Fearing the guerrillas would detonate large quantities of explosives rigged inside the building, the security forces pumped large quantities of gas into the theatre, knocking out the guerrillas before sending in special forces squads.
In the ensuing mayhem, most of the guerrillas, including their commander Movsar Barayev, were killed. A handful were taken into custody for interrogation.
Initial reports suggested that miraculously only 10 hostages had died, but the death toll climbed relentlessly. Today, Russia’s three main news agencies quoted health ministry officials as saying that 117 people had died.
It was not clear how the hostages died but many appeared to have succumbed to the gas used to neutralise the guerrillas.
Chernyak said that throughout the siege the guerrillas kept threatening hostages with imminent death, telling them the building was rigged with explosives and nobody would escape.
Before the raid early yesterday a man stumbled in, saying he had managed to get past the security cordon outside the theatre and that he was looking for his son who was among the hostages. “They did not find the boy. So they started to beat him up in a terrifying manner,” Chernyak said.
“Before that, in the same way they beat up a guy who had left the toilet — the orchestra pit — the wrong way, just climbed out of it,” she said. “He was beaten, kicked, it was awful.”
The presence of 18 female suicide fighters with explosives strapped to their waists among the hundreds of frightened theatre-goers added to the atmosphere of fear and violence, Chernyak said.
“These Chechen girls, they were so happy that finally they were about to be free, that finally they were about to blow themselves up,” Chernyak said.
She said the women — each carrying up to 2 kg of explosives stuffed with ball-bearings and nails — repeatedly told terrified hostages they were looking forward to dying and taking others with them.
“When they heard a noise from outside — some eight hours before the storming — they immediately dispersed among the audience,” Chernyak said.
After the siege was over, Russian television showed the women’s bloodied black-clad bodies sprawled or slumped in their seats, still attached to their explosive devices.
None of the “black widows”, so named by some local media because three of them were married to Chechen field commanders killed by Russian forces in Chechnya, managed to detonate their bombs.