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Commandos Strike, Death Toll Hits 167

In a pre-dawn showdown to the three-day hostage standoff, special forces gassed and stormed the theater where hundreds of people were being held hostage Saturday.

The official death toll among hostages rose from 67 at noon Saturday to 117 Sunday night; all but one died from gas poisoning.

The number of hostage-takers killed in the raid also rose, from 34 at noon Saturday to 50 later in the day. Thirty-two of them were men and 18 were women. Four suspected rebels were detained, one in the hospital Sunday.

"We found ourselves having to choose between a horrible tragedy, in which all the hostages would die, and a horrible disgrace [in which Putin would have to give in to the rebels]," Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov said Sunday on Channel One television.

"The special forces' operation allowed us to prevent the disgrace and avoid the horrible tragedy," he said. "A tragedy did take place, but it wasn't what it could have been."

Government spokesmen said Saturday that the rebels provoked the storming by shooting two hostages before their 6 a.m. deadline for federal forces to start pulling out of Chechnya.

However, evidence suggests the special forces planned the storming as early as Friday night.

Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Vasilyev said Friday night that the area surrounding the police cordons would be cleared of the crowd of onlookers. Foreign diplomats were warned Friday of an upcoming storming, the Observer newspaper reported Sunday.

And the government clamped down on media reports from the site.

President Vladimir Putin on Friday designated his envoy to the Southern Federal District, Viktor Kazantsev, to negotiate with the hostage-takers on his behalf. But the rebels refused to meet with him, Interfax said.

Lawmaker Boris Nemtsov, who met with the hostage-takers Thursday, said by Friday night they were no longer willing to release any more people without political concessions from the Kremlin.

Nemtsov said Saturday that he believed the hostage-takers were following orders from outside the theater. "I think this was the moment of truth, and it is of utter importance that President Putin did not succumb and did not begin to talk with them," he said. "This was the moment we preserved Russia as a state."

According to the hostages, a man in bloodied clothing came into the theater's main hall at about midnight Friday, saying he had burst through police cordons to find his son, Roman. When the boy was not found in the hall, the hostage-takers dragged the man into the lobby and apparently killed him.

The Chechens suspected him of being a Federal Security Service agent. One of the hostages, who did not want to be named, said Sunday that FSB officers confirmed to him in private conversations in the hospital that the man was a secret service agent.

When Vasilyev told reporters Saturday that 67 hostages had died, he also said: "There are victims on our side too, but we won't talk about it now."

FSB officers said on television Sunday that several officers were wounded, but did not mention any deaths.

Observer reporter Nick Paton Walsh, who stood several meters from the theater's main entrance as lifeless bodies were being carried out, said Sunday that he heard an FSB officer anxiously shouting: "Where is our guy?"

Several hostages said their captors spoke of an FSB agent trying such a ploy in the Budyonnovsk hostage-taking crisis, when a drunk man walked into the hospital just ahead of the storming.

The FSB said Saturday that two men were killed and two people wounded -- a man in his head and a woman in her chest -- before the storming began.

At 3:25 a.m., reporters near the theater heard an explosion followed by gunshots. Officials have yet to explain the explosion. At 5:30 a.m., special forces started pumping gas into the theater and gunshots broke out.

Officers from the FSB's elite Alpha and Vympel units entered the building in two groups -- one through the front door, the other from the basement, FSB commandos said on television Sunday. Interior Ministry troops also took part.

The two groups encountered some resistance, and the troops lobbed hand grenades in the lobby and side rooms. Most of the shooting took place on the stage, where the rebels were not entirely incapacitated by gas.

"Those gunmen who were on stage started to fire us, and we hit them," an FSB officer said on television. "There was one woman dressed in black with a pistol and a grenade sitting on the right side of the hall. She fired several shots at us, and we killed her. There was a grenade in her hands, and one of our officers removed it. There was no ring in the grenade [meaning it would have exploded if she opened her palm].

"Then we started to deploy across the hall. There were more gunmen firing submachine guns at us from the right side of the hall, but we hit again."

FSB video footage of the theater after the raid suggested that gun battles had taken place in the lobby and onstage. Female rebels in the back of the hall appear to have been killed while asleep or unconscious. In an apparent attempt to smear the leader of the hostage-takers, Movsar Barayev, an uncorked bottle of cognac stood near his bloody and prostrate body.

By 7 a.m. the operation was over.

"We saw bodies being carried out into the foyer and laid on the concrete," Walsh said. "Spetsnaz soldiers picked them up by the scruff of the neck and slapped them in the face, checking to see if they responded. Some of them responded. They brought out a teenage girl right next to me. She was pale white. She was only in her bra and trousers at that point, so I imagine they tried to resuscitate her. She wasn't breathing and her arm was draped across her eyes."

Sunday Telegraph photographer Justin Sutcliffe said he saw buses coming out with bodies slumped on seats and in the aisle. "It was hard to tell the difference between those dead and unconscious, but some bodies were in the most unnatural way. When the first estimate came of 10 people dead, I couldn't believe it."

Among the 117 dead hostages were at least two foreigners -- Natalja Zjyrov, a Dutch woman whose 14-year-old son was reunited with his father Sunday, and an Austrian woman, Emilia Predova-Uzunova. No other deaths among the 71 foreign hostages were reported.

Police said some hostage-takers might have managed to escape, prompting a continued security alert. Suspected accomplices were detained in the city Saturday. It was unclear how many.

(The Moscow Times 28.x.02)

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