by Sergei Blagov
(IPS) MOSCOW --
theater-hostage crisis in Moscow has dealt a critical blow to official claims of a new political stability in Russia and revived concerns over the prolonged conflict in Chechnya.
The rebel website Kavkaz.org, reported that the attackers belong to a group headed by Movsar Barayev, a nephew of Arbi Barayev, a Chechen field commander killed in a Russian operation.
The website could not be accessed a few hours after a group of Chechen rebels took a theatre audience of about 700 hostage in Moscow Wednesday evening.
Barayev was quoted by Kavkaz.org as saying that the gunmen had gone to Moscow "to die" and that 40 Chechen widows had joined the attack. The theatre, a former culture centre near Proletarskaya metro station, was staging a performance of the popular musical łNord-Ost,˛ based on the novel "Two Captains" by Veniamin Kaverin. In all 711 tickets had been sold in the 1,163-seat hall for the Wednesday show.
Children, Muslims and foreigners who produced their passports were reportedly allowed to leave the building. An estimated 150 people from the audience either escaped or were released. Russian media reported that the hostage takers allowed Georgian nationals to leave the theatre. On Thursday, the body of a young woman slain by the rebels was released.
The issue over Georgians is a loaded one. President Vladimir Putin said that the hostage attack had been planned at a "terrorist centre outside Russia." The presidential finger seemed to point to Pankisi Gorge in neighboring Georgia where thousands of Chechen rebels are based.
Tensions between Russia and Georgia reached a boiling point last month after Putin ordered the military to prepare for strikes into Georgian territory. Putin blames Georgia for sheltering Chechen rebels.
Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze made several concessions to Russia following Putin's warning, but he has remained under diplomatic fire from the Kremlin.
Shevardnadze lost no time in condemning the hostage taking in Moscow and pledged security cooperation with Russia. Georgia's State Security Minister Valery Khaburdzaniya offered troops to help deal with the crisis.
Georgian officials were clearly keen to avoid accusations of complicity in the current crisis, although U.S. allies Georgia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been often cited as supporters of the rebellion in the oil- and gas-rich territory.
But whatever the level of Chechen activity in Pankisi Gorge, the main problem lies in Chechnya itself where the presence of more than 80,000 Russian troops has failed to stop the uprising.
In an attempt to calm the situation, some members of the Chechen diaspora in Moscow said they were ready to offer themselves as hostages, according to news reports. The hostage-taking is "absolutely senseless," said chief administrator for Chechnya Akhmad Kadyrov.
The State Duma deputy from Chechnya Aslanbek Aslakhanov tried to negotiate with the rebels at the theatre, warning them that their actions could spark anti-Chechen feelings in Russia. Ruslan Khasbulatov, a prominent Chechen and former speaker of the Russian parliament, denounced the rebels but warned that the crisis is a byproduct of continuing operations by Russian troops.
The official Russian media says that life in Chechnya has been returning to normal. But Russian troops suffer almost daily casualties from rebel attacks. Separatists have also killed local pro-Moscow village chiefs, and tried to intimidate anyone cooperating with the federal authorities.
The Russian army retook Chechnya in 1999 after it was driven out by separatists in 1996. More than 3,000 Russian servicemen have died in the course of the "second Chechen war," according to official statements.
Russian troops repeatedly search Chechen villages in operations known as zachistki, or cleansing. The searches are officially aimed at checking documents and locating rebels. But there have been numerous allegations of murder. other abuses and looting by troops. Russian officials describe the operations as "tough but necessary."
Human rights groups have condemned the searches. Government troops have arbitrarily detained hundreds of Chechen men in sweep operations, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Critics of Russian policy in Chechnya have demanded talks between President Putin and Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov, who has been declared an outlaw by the Kremlin. But in the wake of the theatre hostage crisis, any negotiated settlement of the Chechen crisis looks even less likely.
The Russian government belatedly ordered extra security measures all over the country on Thursday. Security was reinforced also at key buildings thousands of kilometers from Moscow. Armed forces are on standby for action "anywhere, any time in Russia," the Interior Ministry said.
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