With little progress to report in government negotiations with Chechen terrorists holding some 600 hostages in a theater here, friends and relatives of the victims say they increasingly fear the hostage drama will play out like the war in Chechnya itself: As a prolonged, bloody conflict of sinister proportions, in which the Kremlin’s underestimation of the rebels’ fighting power has deadly consequences.
“WE PRAY THE government doesn’t conduct itself here like it does down there,” said Masha, a 39-year-old homemaker whose husband was one of hundreds of Russians and foreign nationals seized by Chechen terrorists this week. “Down there” — Chechnya — is a place most Russians know from the television and newspapers but often not well. The Kremlin works overtime to control news of Chechen rebel victories over the dispirited Russian army in the breakaway region, about 1,100 miles south of Moscow.
“I never really thought it would reach us up here,” said Masha, who refused to give her last name out of fear the terrorists would target her husband, a technician who was working in the theater Wednesday when the terrorists attacked. As she spoke, Masha nervously twisted a cell phone in her hands, fretting that her husband’s phone battery had died — severing their only form of contact.
For almost a decade, a steady conflict — punctuated by two all-out wars that killed an estimated 80,000 civilians — has kept tens of thousands of Russian soldiers assigned to Chechnya’s insurrection. Thousands of troops have been killed in the battles, although the Kremlin has never given an accurate account of military deaths. On several occasions, the rebels have outwitted their Russian adversaries by taking the battle outside the breakaway republic — to Russia proper. The Kremlin’s track record in dealing with the ensuing hostage situations has left many Muscovites worried over how the current crisis in the Russian capital will play out.
InsertArt(1676783)“Don’t let this be another Pervomaisk,” said Masha, referring to a January 1996 incident in which a group of Chechen rebels took 150 hostages in neighboring Dagestan. More than half of the hostages — local villagers — were killed in a bloodbath when Russian troops surrounded and stormed the rebels, most of whom managed to escape.
By taking their battle to Moscow, only a few miles down the road from the Kremlin, this band of Chechen terrorists appears to have carefully calculated the quandary Russian President Vladimir Putin faces as he seeks a solution to the crisis. The rebels vow to detonate explosives placed in the theater and strapped to their bodies if Russian troops storm the building — a nightmare scenario that could kill many more than at Pervomaisk. By allowing the terrorists to go free in exchange for the release of hundreds of hostages, Putin would be seen to acknowledge defeat in a war he has repeatedly declared already won. “It’s Putin’s decision to make,” said Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based military analyst.
Since taking over the theater on Wednesday, in the middle of a popular Russian musical, the rebels have sought to increase pressure on the Russian president. On Friday morning, many relatives and friends were awakened by calls from their loved ones, urging them to march on the Kremlin and call for an end to the Chechen war. Most families acknowledged that the terrorists probably forced the hostages to make the calls. But with cell phone battery power running low and relatives desperate to help to save the hostages, the phone calls produced one of the first sizeable anti-war protests in years. About 100 people gathered near the theater carrying signs that read, “If it will get our family and friends released, end the war.” The protest caught government officials here off guard. Valentina Matvienko, a vice premier, quickly arranged for the protesting families to meet a top aide to Putin and urged them to “calm their emotions.” The government also refused the families’ request to demonstrate on Red Square.
MSNBC.com’s Preston Mendenhall is on assignment in Moscow.