Terror in Moscow

Print edition : November 22, 2002

The hostage drama in the Moscow theatre, which left 167 people dead, including 50 Chechen militants, signals a return of terror and war to the region.

WITH the monumental crisis that built up when 750 people were taken hostage by militants at a popular theatre in Moscow, Chechen militancy has made a massive comeback to the Russian, and international, stage. It poses an undeniable challenge to the Kremlin: terror has reached out and spread its shadow over the Russian capital.

The body of a Chechen gunman lies at the entrance of the Moscow theatre after it was stormed by Russian special forces on October 26.-AP/GAZETA

It was on the chilly evening of October 23 that 50 Chechen militants, accompanied by suicide bombers, drove into the heart of Moscow and took 750 people hostage at the Moscow theatre, about 5 km from the Kremlin, while they were watching the musical Nord Ost. In a siege that lasted three tension-filled days, the terrorists threatened to blow up the theatre with the hostages in it if their demand for an end to the war in Chechnya was not met. They were not ready to accept anything short of an immediate roll-out of the Russian Army from Chechnya. In a videotape released to the Arabic channel "Al-Jazeera", the leader of the militants, Movsar Barayev, announced: "Each one of us is willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of God and the independence of Chechnya. I swear by God that we are more keen on dying than you are on living."

In a crisis that had the makings of an unprecedented tragedy, relief came rather swiftly and efficiently, even if painfully so. Elite Russian forces, the Alpha group, stormed the theatre at dawn on October 26, after the militants executed two hostages. The action began with a single blast and was followed by a series of explosions. In fact, so swift was the retaliation by the Alpha forces that the militants had no time to detonate some 30 explosive devices they had positioned throughout the building. Even the suicide-bombers who were waiting to blow themselves up could not act. The operation left 50 militants and 117 hostages dead. Images of the corpses of terrorists strewn across the building and seated in chairs in the auditorium were seen. Movsar Barayev was also identified as being among the dead.

Reports say that an unknown poisonous gas was used to overpower the militants before the special forces poured into the theatre. The "gas" was evidently pumped into the building through the air ventilation system. According to Moscow's chief doctor, Andrei Seltovsky, out of the 650 hostages admitted to hospital, 116 died of gas poisoning and one of other causes. He admitted that 150 people were under intensive care. The authorities did not divulge the name of the gas used, though doctors say that it is a drugging agent used for anaesthesia before surgery. The use of the gas was further corroborated by Vladimir Ryabinin, a doctor at Sklifosovsky hospital. "Their (hostages) condition is poor. They were all poisoned with an unknown gas, an unknown poison," he disclosed on October 26. This report was given further credence by a young man who told reporters that his girlfriend, who had been in the theatre, had informed him that a "gas had poured into the hall, after that she didn't remember anything. She has now recovered consciousness in hospital."

Interior Minister Boris Grizlov has defended the strategy employed saying that the damage was minimised by the government and that if the militants had gone ahead and blown up the building the toll would have been much higher. Moscow Mayor Yury Yuskov admitted on Channel 1 television that "we found ourselves having to choose between a horrible tragedy, in which all the hostages would die, and a horrible disgrace (in which President Vladimir Putin would have to give in to the rebels). The special force's operation allowed us to prevent the disgrace and avoid the horrible tragedy." He stressed that "a tragedy did take place, but it wasn't what it could have been."

Two doctors take out of the theatre the body of a woman hostage killed by the militants, on October 24.-AP/ANTON DENISOV, ITAR-TASS

It was late in the evening of October 26 that an anxious Putin, in an emotive address on television, apologised to the families of the hostages. He said: "We proved that Russia cannot be brought to its knees." He tendered an apology to the families of those killed by saying, "We could not save everyone, please forgive us." Putin went ahead to thank the members of the special forces who risked their lives during the raid, as also the international community for the support given against the "common enemy".

The operation may have been a success, but the crisis has brought the Chechen issue back in the limelight. Tackling the Chechen problem will no doubt be foremost on President Putin's agenda now, but the question is whether he will go in for a renewed hardline military campaign in the turbulent region or reach out for dialogue and a negotiated settlement. Going by Putin's background, his hardline position on security matters and the fact that he came to power with a promise to provide security after the apartment bombings of 1999, there seems little doubt on what his choice will be. In fact, sources indicate that a large-scale operation has already been launched in Chechnya. Elite units of the Russian Army are combing the republic for militant groups. Reports indicate that terrorists have come under fire near the settlement of Novogroznensky after they attempted to put up resistance to the special forces.

Movsar Barayev speaking to journalists inside the theatre complex.-AFP

Frustrations were mounting among the Chechen militants, confined as they were to an increasingly uninteresting, desultory battle in the hills of the republic. As their desperation grew, the flavour of the war changed it became increasingly radical and Islamist. Among the most evident signs of radicalisation of the Chechen militants, who were once considered moderate, is a recent videotape of rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov. The Chechen leader, known for making his appearance in combat fatigues, has now been appearing in the garb of a militant Islamist; his attire has even epaulets with verses from the Koran inscribed in the Arabic script.

Evidence of the radicalisation of the militancy was provided by Barayev the only member of the militant gang at the theatre who was bold enough to unmask his face. He was the nephew of Arbi Barayev, a Chechen leader who headed a group of radical Islamist fighters numbering 300. He trained as a fighter under his uncle's tutelage in Alkhan-Kala, a town where his uncle had bought him some property. He rose quickly in his uncle's Islamic regiment, earning the reputation of one of the best fighters in the group and was appointed one of Arbi's bodyguards. The director of the North Caucasus Service, Aslan Doukaev, told the press in Moscow recently that "from Arbi Barayev's background, I know that there was a great element of religious extremism to his group. He was often accused of being the main proponent of the Wahabi conservative movement in Chechnya. So I would presume that Movsar Barayev is following in the footsteps of his uncle."

The body of a woman militant, explosives still strapped on, after the operation.-AP/NTV RUSSIAN CHANNEL

Arbi Barayev was infamous for his kidnappings for ransom, among the most famous of them being the abduction and beheading of three Britons and a New Zealander in 1998. The Barayev gang has been linked to several kidnappings, including that of a Kremlin envoy. Barayev controlled a lucrative oil trade in Chechnya and held sway over the main road running through Chechnya. Arbi Barayev was killed in June 2001 after an eight-day Russian operation in Alkhan-Kala; 17 other rebels too were killed in that operation. Movsar Barayev then assumed leadership of the group. In August 2001, he was reportedly involved in a fierce battle with the Russian forces in Argun, and it was widely though wrongly believed that Movsar died in that confrontation. Even as minority militant groups like that of Barayev gained influence in Chechnya, the war continued in a silent stalemate taking a toll of a hundred men every month. Signs of renewed militant activity were evident in August this year when the rebels shot down a military helicopter, killing 118 soldiers.

An amazing aspect of the latest operation was the overwhelming presence of women suicide-bombers. These women were reportedly made widows by the war in Chechnya, and are emotionally and psychologically so scarred that they could turn into kamikaze terrorists. Al-Jazeera aired a pre-recorded tape of five women militants who said they were ready to die for their cause. Released hostages have revealed in the press that these women were the cruellest among the hostage-takers. This is not the first time that Chechen militants have used women as suicide - bombers; the hostage crises in Budyonnovsk in 1995 and in Kizlyar in 1996 also witnessed the presence of several armed women among the Chechen rebels. In June 2000, a woman member of the Barayev clan, Kheda Barayeva, drove through the gates of a military base in Alkhan-Yurt a truck loaded with explosives and blew it up. She died in the blast, which also killed 17 Russian soldiers. Last November, a woman militant blew herself up and killed the Russian military commandant of Urus-Martan.

Outside the theatre on October 28 when Russia observed a day of mourning for the hostages killed.-DIMA KOROTAYEV/REUTERS

The saga of terror and war in Chechnya is two decades old. The first Chechen war was launched by Boris Yeltsin in 1994 after Chechnya declared independence in 1991. It ended in a major defeat for Russia. It was only in 1999 that the second Chechen war started, under the aegis of President Putin, soon after the Moscow apartment bombings. The Russian Army launched a massive crackdown.

Despite a string of hostage crises, the war in Chechnya got relegated to the back-burner and the Chechen militants retreated to the mountains. The hostage crisis in October spells a return of the dogs of war.

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