MOSCOW – Talks to free 75 foreign hostages held by Chechen rebels in a Moscow theater have broken down, the U.S. consul general said Friday, shortly after officials reported they were to be released. The rebels have threatened to kill the hundreds of hostages they hold unless the Russian army pulls out of Chechnya.
Still, James Warlick expressed hope that the foreign hostages would be released by 11 a.m. local time, or 3 a.m. EDT, two hours later than the previous deadline.
"We're hopeful that there will be a release of hostages at that time," he said.
More than 500 Russian hostages were to remain inside. The rebels already have shot and killed one woman.
Embassies were asked to send representatives to meet their freed citizens, Federal Security Service spokesman Sergei Ignatchenko said, and U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow was heading to the scene, the embassy said. Other cars with diplomatic license plates also were seen arriving near the theater.
The foreign hostages include three Americans, as well as Britons, Dutch, Australians, Austrians and Germans.
Seven Russian men and women were released earlier Friday and receiving medical care, but Ignatchenko declined to say why they had been chosen. Officials had expressed hopes that the some 30 children also among the captives would be freed Friday as well.
Early Friday, three male captors appeared on Russia's NTV network wearing camouflage and carrying assault rifles. The one unmasked man was identified by NTV as ringleader Movsar Barayev, a nephew of rebel warlord Arbi Barayev, who reportedly died last year.
The network, whose crew was allowed to accompany a doctor inside the theater, also showed two female hostage-takers wearing head-to-toe robes that revealed only their eyes. Arabic script was printed on their hoods, they cradled pistols on their chests and wore what appeared to be explosives taped to their waists and wired to a small button they carried in their hands.
The captors made no comments in the footage shown, which later included a brief shot of a group of six women hostages guarded by one of the female attackers.
The drama began Wednesday when as many as 50 attackers, some of them women who claimed to be widows of ethnic Chechen insurgents, stormed the theater just before the second act of a popular musical at 9:05 p.m. The hostage killed by a gunshot to the chest, a woman about 20 years old, was the only known fatality of the crisis as it moved into its second night.
Two women jumped from a window under Chechen fire and escaped.
Relatives and friends stood in freezing weather Thursday outside the theater in a rundown southeast Moscow neighborhood three miles from the Kremlin, as special forces troops moved in formation around the building and armored vehicles stood ready. Snipers were on rooftops.
President Vladimir Putin declared that the audacious raid was planned by terrorists based outside Russia, and the Qatar-based satellite TV channel Al-Jazeera broadcast statements by some of the hostage-takers.
"I swear by God we are more keen on dying than you are keen on living," a black-clad male said in the broadcast. "Each one of us is willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of God and the independence of Chechnya."
"Even if we are killed, thousands of brothers and sisters will come after us, ready to sacrifice themselves," a female covered in a black robe except for her eyes said on the tape, which Al-Jazeera said was believed to have been recorded Wednesday — the day the extraordinary raid brought the war in Chechnya some 865 miles north to the Russian capital.
Dr. Leonid Roshal, head of the Medical Center for Catastrophes who was with the NTV crew, said the hostages were trying to maintain a calm face and only two or three were hysterical. He said he treated the hostages for various minor ailments — including eye trouble, coughing and hypertension — and left behind some medication before emerging from the theater without any hostages.
"We are safe and sound, it's warm and we have water and there's nothing else we need in a situation like this," Anna Adrianova, one of the hostages, told Ekho Moskvy radio early Friday. She said the hostages were pleading to Russia's leaders for the situation to be resolved immediately — but without the use of force.
But another hostage said the situation was tense and conditions were growing worse as the captives had not received food or water and were using the orchestra pit as a toilet.
Yelena Malyonkina, spokeswoman for the "Nord-Ost" ("North-East" in German) musical being staged in the theater, said a captive official from the production, Anatoly Glazychev, told her a bomb was placed in the center of the theater and all the aisles and stage were mined.
"Both the terrorists and hostages are nervous," Glazychev said, according to Malyonkina.
A hot water pipe burst overnight and was flooding the ground floor, Ignatchenko said, but the terrorists called it a "provocation" and no agreement had been reached on sending repairmen into the building.
Still, Ignatchenko said some of the hostages were starting to sympathize with their captors' cause and calling relatives from mobile phones to ask them to stage anti-war demonstrations in Moscow.
A group of about 100 protesters arrived near the theater as dawn broke Friday carrying banners and chanting anti-war slogans, pushing against metal barriers police were using to close off the scene. Several said they were responding to requests to protest in calls from relatives.
The hostage-taking was a bitter blow for Putin, who repeatedly has said the country has the situation under control in Chechnya, a mainly Muslim republic.
In televised remarks, Putin described the hostage-taking as one of the largest terror attacks in history and claimed it had been planned "in one of the foreign terrorist centers" which "made a plan and found the perpetrators." He did not provide evidence the raid was organized abroad.
The U.N. Security Council strongly condemned the raid, calling it a "heinous act" of international terrorism and a threat to peace and security. In a one-page resolution adopted unanimously, the council demanded the "immediate and unconditional release of all hostages."
The afternoon release of five hostages and the meeting of two Russian lawmakers with the captors briefly raised hopes for a bloodless finish, but tensions later rose when the body of a woman shot to death by the captors was dragged out of the theater by medics.
Later, the captors fired rocket-propelled grenades at two young female hostages who managed to escape, Moscow police spokesman Kirill Mazurin said, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency. One was an 18-year-old woman, Ignatchenko said. He did not say how they escaped.
Prominent liberal parliament member Irina Khakamada and lawmaker Iosif Kobzon — who also is a singer beloved by Chechens — briefed the Kremlin on their talks with the hostage-takers. One of them promised the duo that citizens of countries "not at war with Chechnya" would be released, ITAR-Tass reported.
On a Chechen rebel Web site, the hostage takers called themselves "smertniki," a word that in Russian refers to fighters who die for a cause.
About 600 hostages, including about 30 children and 75 foreigners, were in the theater, while 39 hostages were previously released, the Federal Security Service said. A Jordanian doctor who was allowed to treat the hostages late Thursday put their number at 800.
The doctor said the hostages needed food and medicine.
The unnamed woman whose body was brought out in the afternoon was believed to have been killed late Wednesday or early Thursday, Ignatchenko said. A Chechen rebel Web site said a woman had been shot before dawn after she tried the enter the area where the hostages were being held.
The head of Doctors Without Borders, Dr. Morten Rostrup, arrived in Moscow early Friday after a demand by the hostage-takers, although the group said it was not yet sure what role it would play in the crisis.
One hostage told Echo of Moscow that the Chechens attached explosives to theater chairs, columns and walls, and their bodies, and along the aisles. The crackle of automatic gunfire rang out at least four times during the crisis.
Putin canceled his planned trip to a weekend summit of APEC countries in Mexico, where he was to have met on the sidelines with President Bush.
One of the men on the Al-Jazeera tape said the attack was planned was "based on orders from the military ruler of the Republic of Chechnya," possibly referring to Aslan Maskhadov, who was president of Chechnya in the interval between the 1996 end of the first war with Russian and the fighting's resumption in 1999.
Over the past decade Chechens or their sympathizers have been involved in a number of bold, often bloody hostage-taking situations in southern Russian provinces, especially in Dagestan.