One hostage at Moscow theater killed

MOSCOW - One of the hundreds of hostages held by Chechen gunmen in a Moscow theater has been shot and killed, a Russian official said Thursday, and the hostage-takers broadcast warnings that all of them are ready to die for the cause of Chechnya's peace and independence.

A blanket-shrouded body, identified only as an unnamed woman, was wheeled out of the theater on a gurney into an an ambulance, footage on the NTV channel showed. Sergei Ignachenko, a spokesman for the Federal Security Service, said the woman appeared to be in her 20s and had been shot in the chest and her fingers broken.

The report of the killing came as efforts to end the crisis intensified. It was not immediately known when the woman died; a Chechen rebel website said a woman had been shot before dawn after she tried the enter the area where the hostages were being held.

The Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite TV channel meanwhile broadcast statements by some of the estimated 50 hostage-takers.

"I swear by God we are more keen on dying than you are keen on living," a black-clad male hostage-taker said in the broadcast. "Each one of us is willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of God and the independence of Chechnya."

"Even if we are killed, thousands of brothers and sisters will come after us, ready to sacrifice themselves," declared a female hostage-taker, covered in a black robe except for her eyes.

Al-Jazeera did not explain how it obtained the footage and it was not clear if it had been taken in the theater or before the raid began. Police and soldiers have pushed journalists hundreds of meters back from the theater.

At a center set up nearby in the grey, shabby neighborhood to provide psychological counselling, distraught relatives tried to raise family members inside the building on cellular phones while snipers perched on rooftops and troops moved on the streets, sometimes jogging in formation.

Alina Vlasova, 24, said her sister Marina was so upset when she called from inside the theater that she could barely speak. "They are standing over us with automatic rifles and are getting angrier," Alina said her sister told her.

Shortly before the hostage death was announced, parliament members Irina Khakamada and Iosif Kobzon met with the hostage-takers, and reported to the Kremlin on what was being demanded.

Earlier, five hostages, including a British citizen in who appeared to be in his 60s, were released after Kobzon - who also is a singer popular among Chechens - and International Red Cross representatives entered the building waving a white flag.

A spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, Annick Bouvier, said the Red Cross representatives were there for humanitarian concerns and not to act as negotiators.

"We never negotiate. We can facilitate," he said.

U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow said three Americans were among the hostages, but did not provide further details. Citizens of the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Austria, Belarus, Bulgaria, Australia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Germany also were confirmed to be among the hostages.

Hostage Maria Shkolnikova, who spoke with Echo of Moscow radio by cellular phone, said the hostage-takers had also asked to talk with representatives of Doctors Without Borders and that they said foreigners could be released after the talks.

"People are close to a nervous breakdown," said Shkolnikova, who added that the hostages had been fed only some water and chocolate. But parliament member Valery Draganov told ITAR-Tass that food supplies had been deleivered to the theater, without specifying how.

One hostage told Echo of Moscow that the hostages had attached explosives to theater chairs, columns, walls and along the aisles as well as their own bodies.

Schools, kindergartens and institutes of higher education near the theater were closed. Extra spots in nearby hospitals were prepared in case of need. As dawn approached, dozens of Interior Ministry troops in full combat gear patrolled the area and armored personnel carriers were parked near the theater.

Security was increased at airports, railway stations and subway stations.

The dramatic hostage taking occurred just 4.5 kilometers (2.7 miles) from the Kremlin. It was a bitter blow for President Vladimir Putin, who repeatedly has said Russia has the situation in Chechnya, a mainly Muslim republic in southern Russia, under control.

Putin, in brief televised remarks, on Thursday afternoon described the hostage-taking as one of the largest terror attacks in history and claimed it had been planned "in one of the foreign terrorist centers" which "made a plan and found the perpetrators" for the attack.

The Kremlin announced that Putin has cancelled his planned trip to a weekend summit of APEC countries in Mexico, where he was to have met on the sidelines with U.S. President George W. Bush. Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov will go in his stead.

Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the Federal Security Service, said Putin was directly overseeing the hostage crisis.

In Washington, White House spokesman Sean McCormack said in a statement that "the American government and the American people stand with the people of Russia at this difficult moment. There are no causes or national aspirations that justify the taking of innocent hostages."

The raid once again brought home to the heart of Russia a war as seen as far-off by many Russians despite the growing number of military and civilian casualties.

Several hostages, speaking by cellular phone to various Russian television stations and news agencies, pleaded with Russian authorities not to use force. Previous attempts by Russian authorities to resolve similar large-scale hostage incidents involving Chechens ended in bloodshed.

Russian security forces do not intend to storm the building unless the hostage takers start killing the hostages, said Gennady Gudkov, deputy chairman of the parliamentary Committee on Security. "It could be days" before the situation is resolved, he said.

While Putin's popularity remains high, public support for the war as expressed in opinion polls has dropped in recent months.

Members of the Chechen diaspora in Moscow volunteered to replace the hostages.

The crackle of automatic gunfire rang out on at least four separate occasions during the hostage-taking in a working class district in the Russian capital. Police and security forces were on high alert throughout the capital, with extra security around electric power plants.

An explosion reverberated in the area Wednesday, but its location and source were not immediately determined.

More than 100 women and children had been released, Moscow police spokesman Valery Gribakin said. The freed hostages were sobbing and shaking as they emerged.

Gribakin said there were 40-50 armed attackers and about 600 people inside the theater when it was seized. The theater holds 1,163 people and 711 tickets had been sold.

A woman who made her way out of the theater said in an interview on Russia's NTV television that men wearing camouflage went on stage, fired in the air and said: "Don't you understand what's going on? We are Chechens."

The armed men and women, wearing camouflage, arrived in jeeps just as the second act was about to begin. When police and security forces surrounded the theater, the attackers opened fired and threw a grenade. One of the hostages, a doctor, was treating a hostage taker who was wounded.

The Interfax news agency, quoting released hostages, said there were pools of blood in the hall of the theater but no casualties. Other hostages reported that the attackers had beaten spectators.

Russian news agencies cited a Chechen rebel website as saying the group was led by Movsar Barayev, the nephew of warlord Arbi Barayev, who reportedly died last year. The website said some of the women hostage takers were the widows of Chechen rebels. On the web site, the hostage takers called themselves "smertniki," a word that in Russian refers to fighters who die for a cause.

Russian television and radio stations broadcast the names of freed hostages over the air. A telephone hotline was launched to provide information to worried relatives and a psychological counseling center set up.

Over the past decade Chechens or their sympathizers have been involved in a number of bold, often bloody hostage-taking situations in southern Russian provinces, especially in Dagestan.

Russian forces left Chechnya in 1996 after a disastrous two-year war but returned in 1999 after rebels raided a neighboring region and Russian authorities blamed rebels for a series of apartment bombings in Russia that killed more than 300 people.

The theater, a former Soviet-era House of Culture that belonged to a ball-bearing plant, was staging a performance of the musical "Nord-Ost," one of Moscow's most popular productions.