118 hostages dead in Moscow theater raid

MOSCOW - More than a day after Russian special forces ended a hostage crisis with gunfire and sleeping gas, desperate relatives of hundreds of the freed captives stood in a cold rain outside a Moscow hospital Sunday waiting for word on their condition.

The Health Ministry said Sunday afternoon that 118 hostages died. Special forces on Saturday morning stormed the theater where gunmen held the audience of a musical as hostages. Hundreds of others were incapacitated by the unspecified gas that was spread before the forces stormed in.

Irina Ramtsova waited outside the black iron gates of City Clinical Hospital No. 13 with pictures of her father, Fyodor, a trumpet player at the theater seized by heavily armed Chechen rebels Wednesday.

"We keep calling and calling and there is no information," she said.

The family last heard from him when he called on his mobile phone during the 58-hour siege, saying he was sitting next to one of the bombs the hostage takers were threatening to detonate. Official hotlines have been no help, she said.

Like Ramtsova, many were unsure where their relatives were, and came because the bulk of the survivors needing medical attention - some 320 - were at that hospital.

"They are hostages again," one of the relatives shouted to the armed guards behind the gate. After pleas to speak with a hospital administrator, a doctor came out and promised to see about providing more information.

"It's difficult to talk, I don't know anything," said another woman pressing against the gates. "My only son is in there."

Other people tried shouting their relative's name up at the windows. Officials promised to post a list by 2 p.m. (1100 GMT).

Officials said 50 of the gunmen were killed in the storming. Russian news agencies cited the Health Ministry as saying the number of dead hostages was 118, a number that apparently included at least three who were known to have been killed before the storming.

About 750 hostages were reported to have been freed in the operation.

Russian special forces poured an incapacitating gas into the theater and then moved in around 5:15 a.m. (0115 GMT) to kill most of the roughly 50 hostage-takers and free 750 people.

The gas left many people unconscious and they had to be carried from the theater suffering from symptoms of poisoning. Authorities haven't said what was in the gas.

Nine hostages died because of heart problems, shock or lack of medicine, Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Vasilyev said on Saturday, but how the others died was not specified.

The ITAR-Tass news agency quoted Vasilyev as saying none of the victims died from gas poisoning.

The Dutch Foreign Ministry said early Sunday that a Dutch citizen, Natalja Zjirov, was among those hostages who died. No other deaths among the 71 foreigners among the hostages were known.

President Vladimir Putin, who visited some of the injured Sunday, declared Monday as a national day of mourning for the dead. As the troops surrouding the theater began to withdraw, people began placing flowers around the site.

Besides the 50 assailants the Federal Security Service said were killed at the theater - several with bullets to the head, apparently as they lay incapacitated from the gas - officials said three other gunmen were captured, and authorities searched the city for accomplices and gunmen who may have escaped.

The attackers, 18 of whom were women who said they were widows of Chechens killed by Russian forces, burst into the theater during a performance of the popular Russian musical Nord-Ost, some of them with explosives strapped to their bodies.

They mined the theater and threatened to blow it up unless President Vladimir Putin withdrew Russian troops from the rebellious region of Chechnya.

Russian forces pulled out of Chechnya after a devastating 1994-1996 war that left separatists in charge. In fall 1999, Putin sent troops back in after rebels based in Chechnya attacked a neighboring region and after apartment-building bombings that killed about 300 people were blamed on the militants.

In 1995 and 1996, rebels seized hundreds of hostages in two raids in southern Russia near Chechnya, and dozens of people died in both cases, many of them killed when Russian forces attacked the assailants.