Show Of Nerve

Anatoly Beloyusov had never seen anything quite like what he found in the ruined auditorium. The professional rescue worker was right behind the Special Forces who stormed Moscow's Melnikova Street theater in a predawn raid, ending a 58-hour standoff in which nearly 850 performers and theatergoers, dozens of them children, were held hostage by a suicide squad of Chechen terrorists. Here and there, among mounds of candy wrappers and empty bottles from the snack bar, lay the corpses of 50 hostage takers. The men wore camouflage uniforms; the women were head to toe in black, with thick belts evidently containing explosive charges strapped to their waists. Some were slumped in the seats where the military's knockout gas had toppled them. By one account, commandos finished off the unconscious female terrorists one by one, with a single bullet each. All around were the hostages, in the aisles, the seats, even the balconies, many in shock, others unconscious--and more than 90 of them dead or dying. Few had obvious wounds. Beloyusov and other emergency workers raced to evacuate the survivors. "All we could say to the hostages was, 'It's going to be all right'."

Russian officials called the raid a spectacular success. Until the Special Forces went in, there had been little hope that anything less than a miracle could save the hostages. The terrorists claimed to have placed enough explosives around the auditorium to demolish the building in case of a rescue attempt, and they vowed to begin executing their captives at 6 a.m. Saturday unless the Kremlin ordered an immediate military withdrawal from Chechnya. The threat reportedly came true even before the deadline. Two hostages were shot dead, and the commandos used overwhelming force to stop the killings. It was soon over. "This is one of the biggest victories anyone has ever scored in the war on terrorism," said Gennady Gudkov, a security expert and deputy in the Russian Parliament. But not all Russians agreed with him. Some worried that the rescue itself had killed many of the hostages. Others were convinced that the whole nightmare might have been avoided if the government had been more amenable to negotiating peace in Chechnya. President Vladimir Putin said he did only what had to be done. "We proved that it is impossible to force Russia to its knees," he said in a nationally televised speech. "We were not able to save everyone," he added. "Forgive us."

The siege began on Wednesday evening, halfway through a performance of the homegrown hit musical "North-East." The night was raw and drizzly, but hundreds of adults and scores of youngsters attended the show, inspired by a popular children's book about polar explorers. As the second act began, a group of armed Chechens burst into the theater, firing their weapons at the ceiling and shouting: "Allahu akbar!" ("God is great!") Their leader was later quoted as saying, "We came here to die." He was Movsar Barayev, 25, the nephew of Arbi Barayev, who headed one of Chechnya's most notorious kidnapping gangs before his death in a shootout with Russian troops about 16 months ago.

An increasingly desperate series of negotiations filled the next two days. The government was ready to make only one concession: the captors could live if they freed their hostages. Many of the prisoners used mobile phones to contact panic-stricken relatives outside, but the calls gradually stopped as batteries died or phones were confiscated. Some hostages, forbidden to use the lavatories, reportedly used one corner of the orchestra pit as a makeshift toilet. Negotiators asked if they could have food delivered, but the captors refused. Chechens, they said, are used to hunger.

Early Saturday morning the Special Forces got orders to take the building. Security officials said the decision was made at their emergency command post near the theater, with full approval from higher authorities. As snow and freezing rain lashed the streets, troops released an unidentified gas into the theater's ventilation system, blasted entrance holes in the outside walls and threw stun grenades inside. A chorus of car alarms, set off by the concussions, added to the din. When the shoot-out was over, Barayev lay dead, sprawled on his stomach in a pool of blood. A few terrorists made a run for it; two were captured alive, and Russian police were said to be seeking two others.

That was not the end of the ordeal. On Sunday dozens of dead remained unidentified. The hospitals were full of incapacitated hostages, and frantic relatives were still looking for their loved ones. Authorities insisted that no children and no foreigners were among the dead, although dozens remained unaccounted for; at least two Americans were said to be among the missing. And there were rising suspicions that many of the hostages were killed by the knockout gas which was supposed to help rescue them, although officials blamed the deaths on shock, heart problems and lack of access to medicines. Emergency-room doctors were quoted as saying the hostages had been "poisoned" by the gas, but soon authorities ordered them to stop talking to the press, which only added to the rumors.

Meanwhile the Chechen war continues, and could even worsen. There's little or no way to punish the militants with retaliatory strikes: the Russian Army has already hammered the breakaway republic into rubble. That effort only enlisted more Chechens to fight for the rebel cause. Still, some analysts hope the defeat in Moscow will weaken Chechnya's extremists, making it easier for Putin to cut a peace deal with moderates. That won't be easy. Three years of relentless war have shattered the people of Chechnya into rival gangs with little to unify them but a visceral hatred of Russia. Last weekend many Moscow residents were quietly celebrating the end of the siege. Few were willing to contemplate what the militants might do next time.