Moscow theater hostage crisis

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On Wednesday, October 23, 2002, 40 Chechen terrorists seized a crowded Moscow theatre, taking over 700 hostages and demanding the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya. After a siege of two and a half days, the Russian government raided the building with the assistance of knockout gas. All of the terrorists were killed, along with about 120 of the hostages.



The attack took place at the House of Culture of the State Ball-Bearing Plant Number 1, a Moscow theater (named for its former owner) in the Dubrovka area. During Act II of a sold out performance of Nord-Ost, approximately 40 heavily armed terrorists, led by Movsar Barayev, nephew of a slain Chechen military leader, entered the theater and took everyone there hostage (audience and performers). They threatened to kill them unless Russian forces immediately and unconditionally withdrew from Chechnya.

Some performers who heard the takeover while resting backstage escaped through an open window and called the police. The escapees reported that approximately half of the terrorists were women, which is highly unusual. Cell phone conversations with hostages trapped in the building revealed that the terrorists had grenades and other explosives strapped to their bodies, and had deployed more explosives throughout the theater, indicating that they would blow up the entire building if government security personnel attempted to attack.

A videotaped statement was acquired by the media, in which the terrorists indicated their willingness to die for their cause. In the first days, the terrorists released Muslim members of the audience, some of the children in the audience, and a man with a heart condition, but refused requests to release non-Russian nationals. Several hostages managed to escape through rear or side windows; others were shot at by the terrorists as they attempted to escape. One civilian woman from the outside was shot and killed by the terrorists when she tried to enter the theater.


The videotaped 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 God has given us, in the same way he has given it to other nations. God 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 God'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."


Early Saturday morning, October 26, forces from Russia's elite Spetsnaz commando unit of the Federal Security Service (FSB) pumped an aerosol anaesthetic into the theater through a hole in the wall before storming the building from the roof and from all entrances. They decided on this tactic because of the large number of terrorists and the explosives they had scattered all over the building, and the likelihood that they would start killing hostages as soon as they realised they were under attack.

During the raid, many of the terrorists were shot in the head at point-blank range after already losing consciousness from the gas. One Russian commando told the media, "I understand that this is cruel, but when there are two kilograms of plastic explosives hanging on a person, we see no other way of rendering them safe."

At least 40 terrorists and 120 hostages (official figures – 33 and 128 respectively) died in the raid or in the following days. The terrorists were shot in the head. Two hostages were shot by terrorists, while the others died through a combination of the fentanyl-based aerosol, lack of food and water, and the lack of adequate medical treatment following the raid.


Efforts to treat victims were complicated because the Russian government refused to tell doctors what type of gas had been used. The head doctor of the Moscow public health department announced that all but one of the hostages that were killed in the raid had died of the effects of the unknown gas, rather than from gunshot wounds. At the time, the gas was surmised to be some sort of surgical anaesthetic or chemical weapon. Foreign embassies in Moscow, including the United States Embassy, issued official requests for more information on the gas to aid in treatment, but were publicly ignored.

Russian President Vladimir Putin defended the raid in a televised address later that morning, stating that the government had "achieved the near impossible, saving hundreds, hundreds of people," asked forgiveness for not being able to save more of the hostages, and declared Monday a national day of mourning for those who died.

Armed guards were posted at the hospitals the victims were taken to, and doctors were ordered not to release any of the theater patients, in case terrorists had somehow hidden themselves among the hostages. Family members of hostages panicked as the government refused to release any information about which hospitals their loved ones had been taken to, or even whether their relatives were among the dead.

While still refusing to identify the gas, on October 28 the Russian government informed the US Embassy of some of the gas' effects. Based on this information and examinations of victims, doctors concluded the gas was a morphine derivative.

On Wednesday, October 30, Russia responded to increasing domestic and international pressure with a statement on the unknown gas by Health Minister Yuri Shevchenko. He identified it as an aerosol of a Fentanyl derivative, a powerful opioid.

A German toxicology professor who examined several German hostages said that their blood and urine contained halothane, a surgical anesthetic not commonly used in the West, and that it was likely the gas had additional components. However, it should be noted that halothane has a strong odor (although often defined as "pleasant" by comparison with other anesthetic gases). Furthermore by the time the whole theater area would be filled with halothane to a concentration compatible with loss of consciousness (0.5% - 3%), it is likely that terrorists inside would have realized they were being attacked. Additionally, recovery of consciousness is rapid after the flow of gas is interrupted, unlike with high-dose fentanyl administration. Therefore, although halothane might have been a component in the aerosol, it was probably not a major component.

Long-term effects

While the siege was underway, the Russian government closed one television station, censored the coverage of another television station and a radio station, and publicly rebuked a newspaper for its coverage. On November 1, the lower house of the Duma approved broad new restrictions on press coverage of terrorism related incidents, widely expected to meet with swift approval by the upper house and then Putin. The Duma refused to consider a proposal by the liberal Union of Right Forces party to form an investigative commission charged with probing the government's actions in the theater siege. These new policies prompted renewed fears in Russia that Putin is systematically taking control of all Russian media.

Rebel military commander Shamil Basayev posted a statement on his website claiming responsibility for the incident, resigning all official positions within the Chechen government, and apologizing to Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov for not informing him of the planned raid. The Russian government claims that wiretapped phone conversations prove that Maskhadov knew of the plans in advance, which he denies.

The attacks prompted Putin to tighten Russia's grip on Chechnya. The Russian government's media agency reported that 30 rebel fighters were killed in a battle outside Grozny on October 28, and Putin announced that unspecified "measures adequate to the threat" would henceforth be taken in response to terrorist activity. The Chechens have responded in kind to the increased frequency of Russian raids following the siege. President Maskhadov's unconditional offer for talks with Russia was dismissed, as the Russians believe he exerts little influence in Chechnya.

Russia also accused Akhmed Zakayev, a Chechen envoy and associate of Aslan Maskhadov of involvement. When he visited Denmark for a congress in October 2002, the Russians demanded his arrest and extradition. In Denmark he was held for over a month, but released when the Danish authorities were not convinced that sufficient evidence had been provided. On December 7, Zakajev claimed asylum in London. The British authorities arrested him but he was released on bail, paid by Vanessa Redgrave among others. His extradition proceedings then collapsed and he was given political asylum in Britain.

A similar hostage-taking by Chechen nationalists occurred in Beslan in September 2004 (see Beslan school hostage crisis).

The play Checklist for an Armed Robber, by Vanessa Bates, was inspired by the events that occurred in both this incident and an armed holdup in Australia [1] (

See also

External links and references



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