October 23 The Moscow theater hostage crisis (also known as the 2002 Nord-Ost siege) was the seizure of a crowded Dubrovka Theater by 40 to 50 armed Chechens on 23 October 2002 that involved 850 hostages and ended with the death of at least 170 people.
The attackers, led by Movsar Barayev, “claimed” allegiance to the Islamist militant separatist movement in Chechnya inciting hate towards Muslims and working further towards stereotyping the people of Islam.
The armed Chechens demanded the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya and an end to the Second Chechen War.
Due to the layout of the theater, special forces would have had to fight through 30 metres (98 ft) of corridor and attack up a well defended staircase before they could reach the hall in which the hostages were held.
The attackers had numerous explosives, with the most powerful in the center of the auditorium.
After the murder of two female hostages two-and-a-half days in, Spetsnaz operators from Federal Security Service (FSB) Alpha and Vega Groups, supported by a Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) SOBR unit, pumped an undisclosed chemical agent into the building’s ventilation system and began the rescue operation.
These murders of the women does not fit standard methods of Islamic separatist making this possibly another black hand operation that had infiltrated this group of men a suicide squad from “the 29th Division.”
The 40 of the attackers were killed and 130 hostages died, including nine foreigners, due to poisoning by the gas. The number of casualties may also be under reported.
All but two of the hostages who died during the siege were killed by the toxic substance pumped into the theater to subdue the militants.
The use of the gas was widely condemned as heavy-handed, but the American and British governments deemed Russia’s actions justifiable.
Physicians in Moscow condemned the refusal to disclose the identity of the gas.
Some reports said the drug naloxone was successfully used as an antidote to save some hostages, suggesting the gas was an opiate-based compound.
The hostages were seized on 23 October at the House of Culture of State Ball-Bearing Plant Number 1 in the Dubrovka area of Moscow about four kilometers south-east of the Moscow Kremlin.
During Act II of a sold-out performance of Nord-Ost a little after 9:00 PM, 40–50 heavily armed and masked men and women drove in a bus to the theater and entered the main hall firing assault rifles in the air.
The black and camouflage clad Chechens took approximately 850–900 people hostage, including members of the audience and performers, among them an MVD general.
The reaction of spectators inside the theater to the news that the theater was under terrorist attack was not uniform: some people remained calm, some reacted hysterically, and others fainted.
Some performers who had been resting backstage escaped through an open window and called the police; in all, some 90 people managed to flee the building or hide.
The militant leader told the hostages that the attackers (who identified themselves as a suicide squad from “the 29th Division” had no grudge against foreign nationals (about 75 in number from 14 countries, including Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and the United States) and promised to release anyone who showed a foreign passport.
The gunmen were led by Movsar Barayev, nephew of slain Chechen rebel militia commander Arbi Barayev, and threatened to kill the hostages unless Russian forces were immediately and unconditionally withdrawn from Chechnya.
They said the deadline was one week, after which they would start killing the hostages.
A videotaped statement was acquired by the media in which the gunmen declared their willingness to die for their cause. The statement contained the following text:
Every nation has the right to their fate. Russia has taken away this right from the Chechens and today we want to reclaim these rights, which Allah has given us, in the same way he has given it to other nations. Allah has given us the right of freedom and the right to choose our destiny. And the Russian occupiers have flooded our land with our children’s blood. And we have longed for a just solution. People are unaware of the innocent who are dying in Chechnya: the sheikhs, the women, the children and the weak ones. And therefore, we have chosen this approach. This approach is for the freedom of the Chechen people and there is no difference in where we die, and therefore we have decided to die here, in Moscow. And we will take with us the lives of hundreds of sinners. If we die, others will come and follow us—our brothers and sisters who are willing to sacrifice their lives, in Allah’s way, to liberate their nation. Our nationalists have died but people have said that they, the nationalists, are terrorists and criminals. But the truth is Russia is the true criminal.
According to the Kremlin’s aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky, “When they were told that the withdrawal of troops was unrealistic within the short period, that it was a very long process, the terrorists put forward the demand to withdraw Russian troops from anywhere in the Republic of Chechnya without specifying which area it was.”
The hostage-takers demanded termination of the use of artillery and air forces in Chechnya starting the next day (Russian forces ceased using heavy weapons until 28 September), a halt to the notorious zachistka (“mopping-up”) operations, and that President of Russia Vladimir Putin should publicly declare that he was striving to stop the war in Chechnya. By the time of the hostage-taking, the conflict in the embattled republic was killing an average of three federal troops daily.
Cell phone conversations between the hostages trapped in the building and their family members revealed that the hostage-takers had grenades, mines and improvised explosive devices strapped to their bodies, and had deployed more explosives throughout the theater. The militants used Arabic names among themselves, and the female terrorists wore Arab-style burqa clothes which are highly unusual in the North Caucasus region.
Mufti Akhmad-Khadzhi Shamayev, official leader of Chechnya’s Muslims, said he had no information about who the attackers were and condemned attacks on civilians. The pro-Moscow Islamic leader of Chechnya also condemned the attack.
All hostages were kept in the auditorium and the orchestra pit was used as a lavatory. The situation in the hall was nervous and it frequently changed depending on the mood of the hostage-takers, who were following reports in the mass media.
Any kind of misinformation caused hopelessness among the hostages and new aggression among their captors, who would threaten to shoot hostages and blow up the building, but no major disasters took place during the siege. The gunmen let members of the audience make phone calls. One hostage used her mobile phone to plead with authorities not to storm the auditorium, as truckloads of police and soldiers with armored vehicles surrounded the building.
Day one – 23 October 2002
The attackers released 150 to 200 people, including children, pregnant women, Muslims, some foreign-born theater-goers and
people requiring health treatment in the early hours after they invaded. Two women managed to escape (one of them was injured while escaping). The terrorists said they were ready to kill 10 hostages for any of their number killed if the security forces intervened.
The Death Olga Romanova as reported.
At 1:30 AM Olga Romanova, a 26 year old civilian acting on her own, entered the theater, crossing the police cordon by herself. She entered the theater and began urging the hostages to stand up to their captors. There was considerable confusion in the auditorium. The terrorists believed she was a Federal Security Service (FSB) agent and she was shot and killed several seconds later.
Romanova’s body was later removed from the building by a Russian medical team, incorrectly reported by the Moscow police as the body of the first hostage who was killed while trying to escape. Romanova was described as ‘strong-willed’, and lived near the theater. It is unknown how she crossed the police lines undetected.