MOSCOW -- Gunfire rattled in the theater at dawn Saturday and Russian special forces pumped it full of sleeping gas before troops stormed the building, killing 42 Chechen rebels and freeing more than 700 captives in the third day of a hostage drama. Officials said 67 captives were killed.
The Chechen rebels seized the theater Wednesday night during a popular musical and demanded President Vladmir Putin pull the Russian army out of their homeland where war has raged for most of the past decade. The brazen takeover stunned Moscow and all of Russia.
Many of the freed hostages were taken to hospitals in city buses still unconscious or having difficulty walking. Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Vasilyev did not say what type of gas was used during the raid.
Hours after the operation, Vasilyev said 67 hostages had died in the crisis. He did not specify whether that figure included people killed by the rebels before the special forces raid. He said no children were among the dead, nor were the estimated 75 foreign hostages harmed. His figures showed about 750 hostages were freed. The ministry later said 42 of the rebels were killed, including 18 women, Russian news agencies reported.
"We are grieving with those close to the 67 hostages who were lost. We couldn't save them," an emotional Vasilyev said. It was unclear how the hostages were killed or who killed them.
Putin visited with some of the freed hostages at Sklifosovsky Hospital.
Russian television showed Putin, clad in a white doctor's coat, speaking with some of the hostages.
"Stay here and rest," Putin told a young man identified as Nikita, who replied "OK, I will stay and rest, but I want to take a shower."
The hostage takers had thoroughly mined the building. Hostages said bombs were placed in the center of the theater and the stage and aisles were mined.
"The structure of the building and the threat of an explosion gave evidence that no one would survive in the building if the explosion was powerful enough. Such is its architecture," Vasilyev said.
Shortly after the storming, officials said some gunmen were believed to have fled into the Russian capital of 9 million people, but Federal Security Service chief Nikolai Patrushev told President Vladimir Putin hours later that none of the captors escaped.
In that meeting, Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov said about 30 accomplices of the gunmen had been arrested in the Moscow area, but details were not immediately available. Moscow Prosecutor Mikhail Avdyukov said later that four suspects were detained in the capital, including two suspected of having been among the hostage-takers.
At least three people were killed by gunmen inside the theater. A young woman was killed in the early hours of the crisis, although it was not clear if she was a hostage or a distraught relative who had rushed into the building. Early Saturday, officials said the captors killed two hostages and wounded two others.
The hostage-takers earlier threatened to begin killing their captives at dawn Saturday. After the two killings, officials reached the captors by phone but then quickly said their negotiations had failed. The raid began.
Russian television pictures from inside the theater showed the camouflage-clad body of the gunmen's leader, Movsar Barayev, lying on his back in blood and broken glass, a cognac bottle sitting on the floor near his hand.
In the theater hall, the corpses of several female captors, clad in black robes and head coverings, sprawled in the red plush seats, their heads thrown back or on their folded hands, as if asleep.
Canisters loaded with explosives and metal fragments were attached to the waists of some captors.
How the gas was spread through the building was not immediately known, but workers were seen digging around sewers and steam pipes near the theater in the first day of the crisis.
There were no immediate reports of any deaths among the forces that stormed the building, the ITAR-Tass news agency said, citing the so-called "operative staff" set up to coordinate Russia's response to the crisis.
The pre-dawn assault came in the third day of the crisis, after a night of heavy explosions and repeated bursts of gunfire.
Sergei Ignatchenko, spokesman for the Federal Security Service, said the operation to free the hostages began when the Chechen rebels started executing captives.
Earlier, a mediator who met with the gunmen said they promised to release the hostages if Putin declared an end to the war in Chechnya and began withdrawing troops.
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