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Updated: 15.10.2003

A contemporary Russian musical, gained notoriety after the building of Dubrovka Theatre Centre, where Nord-Ost had been staged, was seized by Chechen terrorist rebels on October 23, 2002. The mournful list of people died in the Theatre Centre includes the names of 128 people - 120 Russian citizens and 8 foreign nationals. 5 hostages were shot dead by the terrorists.

Within Russia, Nord-Ost acquired considerable fame long before it gained notoriety. It attracted more than 300,000 spectators over a year-long run, before the show and its Dubrovka venue in central Moscow gained global attention because of the painful events of October 23 - 26, 2003.

The musical itself is based on a famous Russian book "Two captains" by V. Kaverin - the book that's been loved by millions and is as epic and adventurous as "Les Miserables" by V. Hugo. Authors of the musical are Alexei Ivaschenko and Georgy Vasiliev - two talented Moscow composers.

On Wednesday evening October 23, 2003, about 50 Chechen rebels, including women who said they were war widows, stormed the theatre, taking staff, actors and audience hostage to demand an end to the conflict in their country. From the start the rebels have said they were ready to die and take the hostages with them.

Chechens holding about 600 hostages released eight children Friday and then set a dawn Saturday deadline to begin killing the rest of their captives. Shortly afterward, Nikolay Patrushev, head of the Federal Security Service, said the rebels' lives would be guaranteed if they freed all hostages - including 30 children and 75 foreigners. The hostage-takers released eight children Friday afternoon and let seven adults go earlier. However, their promises to free the estimated 75 foreigners were not fulfilled

Late Friday, a mediator who met with the gunmen said they promised to release the rest of the hostages if Russian President Vladimir Putin declared an end to the war in Chechnya and began withdrawing troops.

Special Forces moved in before dawn

The theatre was liberated in a dramatic pre-dawn storming on Saturday, apparently triggered by the sound of gunfire from inside the besieged building in the early hours of the morning. Soldiers believed the Chechen gunmen were carrying out their threat to start executing hostages, and their assault plan swung into effect.

An incapacitating gas - later described as opium-based - was pumped in, with fatal consequences for dozens of the hostages. The gas was pumped in for 30 minutes before a force of 200 soldiers began their full-scale assault. From all sides, dozens of men - some from the elite Alpha and Vympel sections - swarmed in, masked and heavily armed.

One squad burst into the auditorium from the theatre's basement, while another unit burst through the front door.

Those gunmen who were on stage started to fire at the soldiers, who started to deploy across the hall. There were more gunmen firing submachine-guns at the soldiers from the right side of the hall. Other gun battles were reported in the theatre's lobby. Officials described how at least one of the women fighters had been shot dead as she held a grenade in her hand.

None of the rebels' explosive devices went off

Certainly nearly all the 50-odd rebels were dead by the time the Special Forces declared the building secure at 07:20 - less than two hours after the raid began. More than 40 had died of gunshot wounds, not from the effects of the gas.

For the hostages, it was the gas which was the big killer - around 113 are thought to have died from its effects.

A handful of surviving fighters were led away in handcuffs. Authorities later said that others might have escaped.

There has been a debate about whether Nord-Ost should have ceased out of respect for the victims, or the money for its revival better spent on compensating their families. There was certainly more than a little political opportunism in government efforts to help the re-launch, as an implicit justification of the existing approach to handling the crisis in Chechnya.

The musical Nord-Ost has undergone a second birth. A repeat premiere of the revived show has been staged at the Dubrovka Theater Center, the site of a terrorist attack between Oct. 23-26, 2002.

Related links:

Nord-Ost Official Site

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