Hostage Crisis

Anna Politkovskaya was in Los Angeles yesterday, waiting to attend a dinner honoring her for her courage in covering the war in Chechnya. She didn't make it to the dinner. Instead, the award-winning reporter flew back to Russia for talks with the heavily armed Chechen guerrillas holding hundreds of hostages in a Moscow theater.

"I have always believed that Russian journalism, first and foremost, is the journalism of action. The journalism of taking the step that you simply must take," Politkovskaya said in a brief message before leaving California.

Politkovskaya, winner of a Courage in Journalism award from the International Women's Media Foundation, spent about two hours inside the theater today as police and anxious relatives of as many as 700 remaining hostages kept up their vigil in the cold rain outside. While details of her talks with the guerrillas have not yet emerged, one immediate benefit was that fresh water was delivered into the building. The rebels had previously refused to accept food or water.

In a separate development earlier today, eight children and seven others were released. But the situation remains tense amid reports that the rebels have threatened to start executing their captives on Saturday morning. The body of a 20-year-old woman, shot to death after the siege began Wednesday night, was brought out of the theater on Thursday. There is also growing concern about food and sanitation inside the theater, which the rebels have threatened to blow up. Politkovskaya rushed back to Moscow after she was named as one of the public figures--along with three deputies in the Russian parliament--whom the rebels apparently believed would give them a fair hearing. The journalist, a correspondent for the Russian biweekly Novaya Gazeta, has made more than 40 trips to cover the Chechen war in spite of threats from the Russian military. In February of last year, soldiers who arrested her while she was investigating allegations of torture of civilians threatened her with rape and execution.

Novaya Gazeta is one of the few publications still reporting independently on the war in Chechnya. That, however, now seems likely to change. Whatever the outcome of the hostage crisis, it has prompted Russians to resurrect the largely silenced debate about the wisdom of the war with Chechen separatists. Journalists covering the siege were told that the hostage-takers demanded that relatives waiting outside the building bring signs calling for Russian troops to be withdrawn from Chechnya. Many have done so and are now carrying posters calling on President Vladimir Putin to think carefully about his policies. One young banner-waving man whose mother is inside the theater told NEWSWEEK that while he had never supported the war, he would not have considered a public protest in the past.

"I am ever more convinced that the war in Chechnya must be brought to an end," Politkovskaya said as she prepared to return to Russia. "The time has come for me to appeal to President Bush and plead with him to use his influence on President Putin to stop the bloodshed in Chechnya, and to prevent it in Moscow."