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Moscow Residents Fixate on Hostage Crisis

Under steel-gray skies, life continued as usual in Moscow, with schools, markets and the metro all open. But the mood was as grim as the weather Thursday, and the reality that the war in Chechnya had reached the capital reinforced doubts over the Kremlin's strategy in the breakaway republic.

A day after heavily armed Chechens stormed a theater and took hundreds of hostages, three elderly Russian women selling flowers, fresh cheese and pickles outside a Moscow metro station had more time than usual to chat: Customers were scarce, and those who did come were more interested in talking about the hostage crisis than in buying food or flowers.

"Everyone is thinking about only one thing, and to be honest, I can understand," said Valentina, 75, who would not give her last name. "It's the only event that we've been talking about."

As millions of other Russians sat watching nonstop television news reports that only reinforced feelings of helplessness, Valentina and the other vendors had to get their information from potential buyers.

"My first question is 'Do you have any news?'" she said.

Wednesday's seizure of the theater was not the first time the wars in Chechnya have spilled into the capital, 865 miles north of the ravaged region, but the audacity and scale of the attack stunned Muscovites.

President Vladimir Putin has not been able to rein in the rebels in Chechnya, and before Thursday's raid there were signs Russians were becoming increasingly disillusioned with the Kremlin's insistence on military action to crush resistance, rather than negotiations to seek a peaceful solution.

The war had high public support when it began in September 1999 after attacks by militants in neighboring Dagestan, and a series of apartment-building bombings in Russia blamed on Chechen militants that killed more than 300 people.

But more than three years later Russian soldiers, civilians and rebels are still dying nearly every day in Chechnya, wearing down tolerance for the war. In a recent survey by the Public Opinion Fund, a leading Russian polling agency, 24 percent of the 1,500 respondents said the conflict in Chechnya should be solved through military action.

Depending to a degree on its outcome, the hostage raid could end up strengthening support for harsh actions against the rebels.

But regardless of when and how it ends, the attack some three miles from the Kremlin is a huge embarrassment for Putin, who came to power on the strength of his tough stance on Chechnya — he once vowed to wipe out rebel fighters even "in the outhouse" — and his image as a guarantor of stability.

Immediately after the attack, Moscow went on high alert. The Federal Security Service, the successor to the Soviet KGB, and the Interior Ministry put plan "Thunderstorm" into effect, requiring all officers to report to their units.

The police presence around Red Square was heavier than usual, with green barricades erected around the square itself, closing it off to all pedestrian traffic.

Taking a break from her job at a sportswear shop in an upscale underground mall just outside the Kremlin's walls, Olga Marosova, 21, said customers seemed somber and subdued.

"Everyone is in shock. There isn't really anything to say," she said.

Marina Nikova said she hesitated to even leave her apartment in western Moscow to take her 4-year-old son, Sergei, and her 14-month-old daughter, Olga, to a park.

"Of course, you think: 'Is it safe?'" Nikova said, rocking Olga in her carriage.

"I stayed up watching the news until 2 a.m. and then went to bed and hoped that when I woke up, it would all be over," she said.

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