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23 Oct, 2007 01:52

Moscow theatre siege remembered five years on

Russia is remembering the victims of one of the deadliest acts of terror in its history – the Moscow Dubrovka theatre siege. On October 23, 2002 terrorists took hostage an audience of over 900 people who'd come to see the musical Nord-Ost.

After three days of stand-off, special forces stormed the theatre, killing all the terrorists. There were also 130 hostages who fell victim to this act of terror.

Nord-Ost was Russia's first homemade big-budget musical. It was being performed to a full house on October 23, 2002, when masked gunmen invaded the stage midsong.

Female suicide bombers surrounded the crowd. They said it would take them a fraction of a second to set off a chain of explosions that would kill the entire audience and cast. They demanded that Russia immediately withdraw its forces from Chechnya.

As police surrounded the theatre, three days of negotiations followed.

The renowned children's doctor Leonid Roshal took part in it.

“The Chechens did not want to die but they were ready to die if necessary. It was not an empty threat,” recalls Leonid Rochal.

The terrorists forced the hostages to use the orchestra pit instead of a toilet. Many suffered from dehydration or illness and several were shot.

The authorities were unwilling to give in to the terrorists' demands, and 57 hours after the beginning of the siege at 6 am on October 26, a release operation began.

Mysterious gas: pros and cons

They did not think about what to do with the hostages after poisoning them. Nobody was ready. The hospitals were expecting people suffering from wounds and gunshots, not gas poisoning

Tatyana Karpova,
Heas of the Victim's Committee

Instead of just storming the building special forces employed a previously unused secret gas.

It knocked out both the suicide bombers and hostages alike, giving the would-be bombers no chance to detonate their explosives. After a short gunfight, in which no policemen died, the operation was complete.

It appeared to be a stunning victory – but it was too early to celebrate.

“They did not think about what to do with the hostages after poisoning them. Nobody was ready. The hospitals were expecting people suffering from wounds and gunshots, not gas poisoning,” explains Tatyana Karpova.

Almost all of the 1000 hostages were alive after all the terrorists had been killed. But 130 died shortly after from asphyxiation – including those that choked on their own vomit – either in the courtyard outside the theatre or on their way to hospital.

Tatyana Karpova says her son was still alive several hours after the end of the siege.

As Head of the Victims' Committee, she has filed a lawsuit against the authorities.

It has been rejected by the Russian courts, but she hopes that the European Court of Human Rights will reach a different verdict.

“We want the people responsible to be punished. We are not bloodthirsty, but it cannot be left like this. The culprits have been feted as heroes, and given awards. They do not deserve this,” believes Tatyana Karpova

Doctor Roshal says that this was one of the most difficult days in his career.

But he defends the actions of the authorities.

“The operation was top secret. Even many of the people who were executing it were not told of what was going on. The organisers were afraid of leaks,” he explains.

A plaque at the site of the tragedy commemorates those who died but it's some of those who survived that feel like they have been forgotten.

The broken windows have been replaced. The theatre has been repainted and reopened. There are posters advertising new musicals. It's business as usual.

However both hostages and relatives say that their lives changed in October 2002. And five years on, the wounds still haven't healed.