Russian Forces Set Hostages Free.
October 26, 2002 1:45 AM   Subscribe

Russian Forces Set Hostages Free. Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Vasilyev said about three dozen of the estimated 50 hostage-takers had been killed and Federal Security Service director Nikolai Patrushev said, contrary to earlier reports, that none of the gunmen had escaped. Terrorism loses again.
posted by David Dark (90 comments total)
It's still unclear how many of the hostages were killed, but all of the 71 foreign hostages, including three Americans, were reported safe.
posted by David Dark at 1:47 AM on October 26, 2002

Awesome. Let's hope the hostage casualties are few.
posted by shoos at 2:11 AM on October 26, 2002

When I heard, around dinnertime in the US, that the terrorists had threatened to begin executing hostages at dawn, I immediately knew that the Russian security forces would be going in. They just don't play.

It may not meet Western standards for these sorts of incidents -- but then, how can you negotiate with suicide bombers?

I can't imagine what it must have been like to endure this ordeal. You get dressed up, you go out to the theater, and before you know it you're under a thug's gun, allowed no food or water for up to two days, forced to relieve yourself in the orchestra pit, and then you see people randomly chosen to be shot in front of your eyes. From reports, some kids remained with their families during the entire thing, too. Shudder.

An interesting pair of opinion pieces: Chechnya in Moscow, by the WaPo editorial board, and Russian Embassy Responds, somewhat miffed.
posted by dhartung at 2:30 AM on October 26, 2002

67 Hostages Died, say Russian officials, including earlier deaths. Over 750 were saved.
posted by dhartung at 2:41 AM on October 26, 2002

Considering how easy it is even for anesthetists to get it wrong I'm rather impressed that the death toll isn't greater from the sleeping gas alone. It must have been quite a feat to simultaneously gas an entire building somewhat uniformly.
posted by cx at 3:31 AM on October 26, 2002

sleeping gas? it was full on nerve gas they used, those Russians dont mess around!
posted by JonnyX at 3:58 AM on October 26, 2002

I think a lot more than 67 would be dead if it was nerve gas...
posted by PenDevil at 4:17 AM on October 26, 2002

dhartung: Thanks for the links. Excellent WaPo editorial; I can understand the Russians' irritation at reading it while the crisis was still going on, but it's a truth they're going to have to face. Thank goodness so many people were saved -- but what a horror this all is.
posted by languagehat at 6:24 AM on October 26, 2002

Russians dont mess around!

Whatever they used, it's hard to believe that they could safely knock out an entire theater with "sleeping gas", whatever that is. I'ts amazing that there weren't more casualties, but at least the civilians are safe.

What a relief.
posted by hama7 at 6:24 AM on October 26, 2002

Nerve gas creates deadly convulsions, not unconsciousness. It's also a Schedule 1 formulation banned by the chemical weapons convention -- the first one listed, really.

US research into non-lethal agents and delivery systems, which are not banned, though this site thinks they're dangerous enough. A more academic site on disabling agents; US research has tended toward alpha-2 adrenergic agonists, which is an anesthetic and relaxant drug family used mainly in veterinary applications, but also in psychotherapy for humans (e.g. clonidine).

Pravda (which, remember, has fragmented and gone through several owners) has some reactionary and credulous coverage; RFE's is more suggestive of pushback.
posted by dhartung at 6:27 AM on October 26, 2002

If the gas knocked everyone out how come most of the terrorists were killed. Oh yeah, Russians don't mess around!
posted by stbalbach at 6:42 AM on October 26, 2002

There's no success like failure, and failure is no success at all.
posted by Satapher at 7:38 AM on October 26, 2002

Thanks for the links, dhartung.

stalbach, you're right: In one of the Pravda articles they state very matter-of-factly that "[j]udging by the poses of their bodies, the terrorists were killed while asleep." Seeing as they were strapped with explosive charges augmented with bearing balls, I guess it is better to err on the side of caution.

But apparently, there has been no comment on the soporific (sleeping agent) used - if that is indeed what they used.
posted by cx at 8:30 AM on October 26, 2002

Actually, CNN is reporting that two of the terrorists haven't been accounted for, and may have escaped.
posted by kfury at 9:01 AM on October 26, 2002

And the game continues, score one for absolutist state powers and better luck next time for the terrorist team. The next time the Chechens will just blow up a damn building and won't take time to let the Russian make the next move. The nerve gas was, at least, a novel idea. The absolutists are showing they can think outside the box. It's gonna be a good interesting series.

End Chechen terrorism, end the war in Chechnya.
posted by letterneversent at 9:02 AM on October 26, 2002

The "awesome" bit struck me as pretty strange, considering that only a few dozen people (censored) died here. Reminds me a deliriously chipper USA Today headline from years ago regarding a plane crash. It read, "Miracle in Chicago: 120 survive, 350 die" or something to that effect.
posted by raysmj at 9:05 AM on October 26, 2002

reading the bbc report it comes across as quite stunning incompetence. the gas - surprise surpise - caused panic and may have helped raise the death toll (i can't understand why - given the comments made here about how difficult it must be to do in a controlled manner - people think this a good idea; gas doesn't discriminate between terrorist and innocent). the attack doesn't seem to have been properly controlled. putin wasn't informed. it's hard to see this as the actions of well-disciplined, expert troops - seems like someone got frustrated and trigger happy. the death toll is huge. i can't think of a worse result to a recent hostage situation (there's a list of hijackings here - only two comparable failures, by pakistani and egyptian troops, in a list of 16).

i can't understand the "macho" approval of this ending that's being expressed by some here ("awesome", "don't mess around" etc) - it appears that the russians screwed up terribly (it should never have escalated to the point of shootings - what happened to negotiations?). more hostages than hostage-takers died.
posted by andrew cooke at 9:05 AM on October 26, 2002

XQUZYPHYR: You're right: everybody loses. But that includes the terrorists. They're dead, and their demands were not met. Further, it's now much less likely that the russians will end the chechen war anytime soon.
posted by Mark Doner at 9:42 AM on October 26, 2002

I disagree with the "terrorism loses" idea. Clearly this--like so many terrorist undertakings--was a suicide mission. Therefore, the fact that they were killed does not mean that they failed to achieve their goals, however odd or inexplicable those goals may appear to us at first.

What they have managed to achieve is attention on the world stage, and a sort of legitimacy-through-power that the weak and ignored/forgotten worldwide crave to keep their causes from obscurity, whether it is the IRA, the PLO, Osama bin Laden, or any of the innumerable separatist groups around the world, for with obscurity comes absolute failure. When they shout "remember us?" in a spray of blood, the world is obliged to take notice, and notice is, in many ways, more important than approval.
posted by rushmc at 9:44 AM on October 26, 2002

Andrew, Russians and Chechans don't negotiate they kill each other the terrorists were there to die and kill as many as they could. About %12 of the hostages died so you could say the Russians had a %88 success rate on this mission. You be the judge if thats "incompetence" given they could have blown up the entire building.

Lets say it was a plane and instead of 40 terrorists it was 4 and instead of 700 hostages it was 70. In this case there would be about 7 dead passangers, 4 dead terrorists and the rest free. Its not a failure when looking at in percentages however the scale of the event was so large of course many people died.
posted by stbalbach at 9:46 AM on October 26, 2002

1) Suicide-ready, homicidal terrorists take hostages
2) They kill innocent people
3) They offer one completely untenable option as a solution
4) The Russians manage to end the situation with as few casualties as possible given the circumstances
5) And yet, the Russians are still the bad guys?
posted by nobody_knose at 9:49 AM on October 26, 2002

3) They offer one completely untenable option as a solution
Why is it untenable?
What are the Russians still doing in Chechnya anyway?
posted by amberglow at 10:12 AM on October 26, 2002

According to Russian mass media sources the reason why there were so many deaths was because elite agents used POISONOUS gas (i.e. instantaneuosly paralyzing gas) so the women terrosrists who were wearing bombs wouldn't be able to connect their wires in time (the gas acts very quickly). If the agents had used sleeping gas, it's obvious the terrorists would have realized what was happening and would have set off all the bombs.

Concluding, those that were in proximity to the women terrorists died because of the poisonous gas that was fired in that area by Russian security forces' Alpha unit (the women terrorists were sitting amid the spectators).
posted by ( .)(. ) at 10:14 AM on October 26, 2002

Based on the terrorist event, the coverage, and the way the situation was resolved, I think Putin won this stand off.

The Chechens are no closer to independance, and I don't see as how they gained any sympathy tot heir cause in the court of world opinion. [discuss]
posted by Fupped Duck at 10:15 AM on October 26, 2002

And yet, the Russians are still the bad guys?

The atrocities carried out against civilians in Chechnya by Russia is evil, and the recent terrorism doesn't justify it. The reason they're there is mostly political (campaign promise by Putin) and greed (controlling gas and oilpipelines that pass through Chechnya).

But if you're talking about criticism of the rescue, well it appears to be a bit sloppy (compared to 71 hostages freed, 1 dead in Peru in 1997), but considering the number of bombs that were everywhere I think we might be a bit premature in criticising the rescue effort.
posted by bobo123 at 10:18 AM on October 26, 2002

For pictures of the dead women terrorists click the following link, and then click on the small green camera at the top right corner of the article, a new window will open, click on red arrows to move through the photos. The photos of the dead terrorists are somewhere in the middle.

Notice the women terrorists look like they are sleeping, no convulsions or blood, it was the poisonous gaz that paralyszed them.
posted by ( .)(. ) at 10:24 AM on October 26, 2002

What are the Russians still doing in Chechnya anyway?
What are we still doing propping up the House of Saud anyway?

I'll give the terrorists this much: the leader of the mission sounded like a total badass with a grudge.

I never know which side to root for in these situations, personally - on the one hand I hate the heavy-handed authoritarianism of governments like the US and Russia. On the other hand I hate innocent people dying because the terrorists are unable to come up with more intelligent means of attracting attention to their cause. Shouldn't people be allowed to say "The benefits of living under your control do not outweigh the degree to which you fail to represent my interests" to their own government? Shouldn't terrorists use media-infiltration and media-based 'terrorism' to communicate their point?

It's difficult to choose between gross injustice and gross stupidity.
posted by Ryvar at 10:28 AM on October 26, 2002

letterneversent: And the game continues, score one for absolutist state powers and better luck next time for the terrorist team.

Yeah, absolutist state powers suck--all of them. So please--go live with the terrorists. I hear they're real nice, egalitarian, and not at all absolutist.
posted by goethean at 10:28 AM on October 26, 2002

Considering the number of explosives and the mindset of the terrorists, I was fully expecting this story to end with everyone inside that building dead. The Russians may not have resolved it optimally, but it certainly wasn't as bad as it could have been. I'm sure the hundreds of surviving hostages and their families are feeling very lucky right now.
posted by dreadmuffin at 10:35 AM on October 26, 2002

Goethean: Meet my friends Irony and Sarcasm. Please remove your head from your hairy, stretch-marked posterior.
posted by letterneversent at 10:37 AM on October 26, 2002

ok, well then my post was obviously sarcastic, too.
posted by goethean at 10:41 AM on October 26, 2002

Much better link!

Scroll to the bottom for photos of the women bombers.
posted by ( .)(. ) at 10:43 AM on October 26, 2002

No, I was referring to familiar sports-casting type lingo in describing the machiavellian state of the world. I didn't give the impression I supported the terrorists nor the statists. I hate either one. You were just being a punk with nothing better to say.
posted by letterneversent at 10:45 AM on October 26, 2002

I can't imagine what it must have been like to endure this ordeal. You get dressed up, you go out to the theater, and before you know it you're under a thug's gun, allowed no food or water for up to two days, forced to relieve yourself in the orchestra pit, and then you see people randomly chosen to be shot in front of your eyes.

I've gotten very good at imagining other people's ordeals in the last year or so.

At least most of the people involved here are going to live to tell the tale themselves.
posted by Epenthesis at 11:29 AM on October 26, 2002

Much better link!

Uh..."better" isn't quite the word I would have chosen. It's certainly graphic. Thanks for the links, though; they really convey the horror.
posted by mediareport at 11:35 AM on October 26, 2002

Thanks for the link?
For a better pictures of "the horror?"
I think you really need to reassess what you value on this earth.
posted by shoos at 11:56 AM on October 26, 2002

Oh damn. I thought you were raysmj. Sorry.
posted by shoos at 11:57 AM on October 26, 2002

Would it have ended any differently if it was a theatre in the US and demands were made to have the US leave Afghanistan?

For those who think the solution would've been for Russia to leave Chechnya, I think the main message would've gone out to terrorist groups that these tactics can work, and encourage more hostage-taking episodes.
posted by Salmonberry at 12:03 PM on October 26, 2002

According to this article at the Washington Post, one of the captives was a Russian reporter. The reporter stated, "We realized that they would not release us alive. We did not believe they would let us go even if all their demands were met and troops are withdrawn from Chechnya."

Also, last night the militants killed two hostages during the night, a man and a woman. "The man was shot in the eye and there was a lot of blood," she said. "I was sitting in the middle of the stalls and everything was happening near me. I thought then that we would all be killed. Something happened later and I fainted."
posted by quam at 12:08 PM on October 26, 2002

Here's a great Christian Science Monitor article from 2000 about the Chechen rebels' very predictable shift from hit-and-run geurilla warfare to suicide bombings and other terror tactics.

Salmonberry, I don't know how much you've read about independence movements' fights against colonialism, but leading Russian historians and military experts quoted in the article note that the war is unwinnable. Like the French in Algeria or the US in Vietnam, I'd argue.

"This war is developing in the classic direction of 20th-century guerrilla struggles, from the Middle East to Northern Ireland," says Alexander Golts, military expert with the weekly Itogi newsmagazine. "The military will crack down harder, and that will lead to more savage and clever forms of terrorism. All this testifies that our leaders have learned nothing from world experience."

In fact, "these tactics" do work. I won't sit here and find fault with the Russian response to this particular event (no massive explosions with hundreds dead? seems like success to me), but I will find fault with the utter lack of intelligent long-term strategy from the Russian side. It's a clear recipe for disaster.

Experts warn that this stage can last for years, or decades. "Let's call it a deadlock," says Mr. Golts. "Neither the Russian Army nor government has any kind of exit strategy for this war, so we can expect them to just go on reacting to events. As for the Chechens, they can be counted on to find more and more imaginative ways to remind us that this war cannot be won."

Meanwhile, a political solution seems more distant than ever.

posted by mediareport at 12:19 PM on October 26, 2002

rushmc: That the terrorists are dead isn't the reason one ought to think they lost. True, they did get a lot of press, but it was bad press: is anybody likely to support the chechen cause because of these murderous bastards? Of course not. It just pisses off the russians and increases support for the war. Why do you think notice is more important than approval? Making everybody want you dead isn't a very good idea in normal circumstances, why should it be any better in this scenario.
posted by Mark Doner at 12:27 PM on October 26, 2002

...the reason why there were so many deaths...
The objective of suicidal terrorists is to maximize the carnage and develop a no-win scenario for the opposition. If one is willing to lay down and die for a cause it's believed this underlines their plight. If someone cares that much about something, to kill themselves and others to bring attention to it, the terrorist theory is nonterrorists will come to see their point of view. OR out of fear of more such events, they'll acquiesce to the overall goal of the terrorist group. It's basically a desperate attempt at a protection racket. "Do as we ask and we won't kill you." Rather childish really. Terrorism is a temper tantrum by the losing side of a political argument.

"I fail to see here how anyone's won a damn thing."
The only way to win is not to play. However, if you're forced into the arena, you gotta do the best you can. If someone broke into my house and threatened my dog, I'd probably get shot myself, my dog would be dead, and there'd be blood everywhere, but I doubt the bastard would get outta my house alive. He definitely would never breed again. We do the best we can, given what fate deals us.

"...a political solution seems more distant than ever."
Isn't that what was once said about Ireland? Things aren't completely ironed out there, but they're better than they once were, and at one time, some had completely written that off as an impossible situation to resolve.
posted by ZachsMind at 12:27 PM on October 26, 2002

"...a political solution seems more distant than ever."

Isn't that what was once said about Ireland?

Of course. So what changed? Talks. And concessions on both sides. Re-read the last two paragraphs of the CSM article, Zachsmind. Putin may not want to stir Islamists in other republics by granting the Chechens any measure of independence, but from here it sure looks like his current strategy is doomed to fail.

There have to be talks.
posted by mediareport at 12:32 PM on October 26, 2002

(.)(.): Hey thanks for linking to the pictures, I wouldn't have ever seen them anywhere else. I'm no one to analyze photos, but it does look like the women terrorists are sleeping, which leads me to wonder if they were poisoned by gas. If the Russians poured poison gas into the theater to prevent the terrorists from exploding their bombs, aren't they at risk of doing just as much damage to the hostages? How did they manage to poison the terrorists but only put the hostages to sleep? Trying to quantify the situation into a 'victory' seems to ignore the actual human lives that were lost here, both to the hands of the terrorists and to the hands of those who were trying to save them. This was not a happy ending, unless no hostages had died. I'm sure somebody is going to be in trouble over this.

I also noticed that, in the pictures, while cute blond women were carried out by soldiers, the men were dragged out. Means nothing, just something that caught my eye.

And on preview: I doubt the Russians will ever join in talks. They are about to invade Georgia next, expanding the war.
posted by elwoodwiles at 12:44 PM on October 26, 2002

Talks have been held in the past, but not since 1999, when Russia re-invaded after losing the 1994-96 war. The point is the Chechens are a distinct people with a unique language and ancient culture who've been fighting Russian control for 200 years. They took advantage of the 1991 dissolving of the USSR to declare independence; Russia refused to grant it, lost a war, and re-invaded in 1999 due to attacks it blamed on Chechen terrorists.

Post-9/11, Putin has been doing everything he can to equate the independence movement with Al Qaida (I'm sure there are now links between the two), but there was an obvious split between the violent Islamist warlords and elected Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov in 1998. Mashkadov - whom the BBC says once actually tried to ban Wahabism - was effectively marginalized by more extreme factions; Moscow no longer recognizes him. He's condemned the theater attacks, but Moscow insists he was directly involved.

Is any of this sounding familiar? It's the same old rebel-colonial story, over and over and over. Are the French still in control of Algeria? Are the British still in control of India?
posted by mediareport at 1:12 PM on October 26, 2002

Not to sound like a troll, but have we had any instances of non-Islamic terrorists in the news of late? And please spare me the sterotypical anti-Bush tripe. I mean really. Is "Muslim Terrorist" becoming an oxymoron?
posted by darren at 1:12 PM on October 26, 2002

Is "Muslim Terrorist" becoming an oxymoron?

you mean a redundant tautology. ...wait a second...
posted by goethean at 1:19 PM on October 26, 2002

Step 3, perhaps follow that with "Basque Separatist".
posted by Grangousier at 1:24 PM on October 26, 2002

Chechen rebels are gathering on the Georgia border now, too.

have we had any instances of non-Islamic terrorists in the news of late

You've got to be kidding:

Main IRA group issues new threat
Oct. 21, 2002 LONDON - The main Irish Republican Army dissident group threatened further violence Monday, just days after a group of its imprisoned leaders confirmed the group was crumbling...

Hindu Extremists Attack Indian Church
BANGALORE, India, Feb 18, 02 ( - A mob of about 50 Hindu extremists attacked Catholic church in southern India, injuring several of the worshippers.

Gujarat's Muslims live in terror
9 May, 2002 [...] Unofficial figures say more than 2,000 people have died, the vast majority Muslims killed by Hindus who constitute more than 80% of the state's population. Independent reports accuse hardline Hindu organisations of orchestrating the violence with the support of India's ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. Fresh deaths are still being reported almost every day and an estimated 150,000 Muslims are still sheltering in relief camps.

Just off the top of my head.
posted by mediareport at 1:35 PM on October 26, 2002

If you want a bit of convenient terrorism you have to do it yourself.
(My line)
I remembered a Channel 4 documentary from about that time that also covered
the astonishing brutality of the Russians in Chechnya
But today things may not be working out as Putin hoped.

All Guardian links, perhaps people can find stuff from elsewhere.
posted by Grangousier at 1:54 PM on October 26, 2002

Before I go, props to mediareport. Good sources.
posted by letterneversent at 2:48 PM on October 26, 2002

Putin won this stand off

Does there have to be a "winner"?

I never know which side to root for in these situations

Do we have to root for one side?

For those who think the solution would've been for Russia to leave Chechnya, I think the main message would've gone out to terrorist groups that these tactics can work

Ah, I remember this from Vietnam: the important thing is not the situation on the ground and what might be best for the people there, nor even the real interests of the U.S. (or in this case Russia), but the "message" you might be sending. If the Commies are allowed to win in Vietnam, all of Asia will go Communist and the Kremlin will start to think we won't care if they invade Western Europe! If the Chechens win, pretty soon Russia will be reduced to a few square miles around Moscow! Easy to get paranoid and crazed that way. Hard to actually think straight. But the latter works better in the long run.
posted by languagehat at 2:49 PM on October 26, 2002

The list of dead is likely to increase. The Russian military is refusing to divulge what was in the gas, so those affected cannot be treated appropriately. Can someone remind me who the good guys are supposed to be.
posted by Fat Buddha at 3:13 PM on October 26, 2002

"Terrorism loses again."

Indeed, but terrorism committed by the weaker side alone. The Russian terrorism against the Chechens will go on, thanks to the deal making going on with the Bush white house, where Russia will look away from a US invasion of Iraq if the US looks away at a Russian attack on Georgia and Chechnya. Terrorism has not lost. Justice has been on the losing side and will remain their for the unforseen future. Screw all kinds, forms and sizes of terrorists.
posted by adnanbwp at 3:33 PM on October 26, 2002

npr reported a Russian government spokesman as saying the gas was a "psychotropic agent". From this I got "psychotropic agents include LSD and BZ, which affect the central nervous system producing hallucinations and irrational behaviour". In high doses BZ 'should be able... to produce much more serious mental effects, probably generally in the area of total confusion and desorientation [sic], which combined with the unpleasant physical side-effects very likely would result in fear and panic.' This would definitely prevent a coordinated response from the Chechens, but I wonder if the level of disorientation would be sufficient to prevent some of them from setting off bombs. Panic would be good from a combat perspective, but not if they were trying to incapacitate them. Maybe at high enough doses psychotropics may have a paralyzing effect?
posted by eddydamascene at 5:27 PM on October 26, 2002

I don't think it was BZ, which has a median latency of around 2 hours. Few of the soldiers going in seem to be using gas masks, which you would expect if it were a typical chemical nerve agent that would linger in an enclosed space. Some reports have the soldiers spraying it directly at groups of the terrorists, as you might use pepper spray -- but that's an irritant, and this seemed to have a nearly immediate effect. And because some photos clearly showed wounds, but others didn't, and so many hostages died, you have to suspect it was independently lethal.

I have no doubt that the USSR's labs were quite creative.

Also, several of the terrorists were reported to have syringes. Along with the bottle of cognac supposedly found in Barayev's hand, you might think this a crude attempt to paint these Muslims as using alcohol and drugs. I personally suspect the syringes may have been charged with atropine, a common antidote for chemical weapons (see The Rock). At the same time the accounts of women hostages talking on cell phones with a television station as the attack began were only gradually overcome, knowing that it was happening. That seems as firm a report as there could be -- but doesn't jibe with the terrorists' inability to set off their bombs.

Incapacitating agents from the Army's own Red Book {google cache}. Coincidentally (?) it's chapter 007. BZ is one the US (and others) developed, stockpiled, and have since destroyed; an Iraqi analog is known as Agent 15. Beyond these two, and normal crowd-control irritants such as tear gas and pepper-spray variants, there isn't much literature.

I actually find that a little disturbing; the US has done plenty of research on stuff that might be used against our troops (or, now, citizens), so you'd think if we knew there was a paralyzing gas we'd have some sort of discussion of it. Maybe it was just a slow-acting sedative, after all.

In any case, it's heartening that the Russian media have become free enough to question the leadership (and there seems to be easy access by Western media as well). It may be that tactics like this will no longer be acceptable, even accounting for Russians' admiration of strong leadership. The Kursk incident was thought to have been a major learning experience in which the typical hierarchical paranoia of the Soviet-era state was gradually replaced by healthy, transparent self-criticism and dialogue with the citizenry.

A couple short responses. In the Caucasus, you can travel 20 miles, cross a ridge, and find a "unique language and culture". Ingushetia, Ossetia, Dagestan ... The Chechen resistance has been more persistent in the last decade, but I'm not sure that's the sole criterion to use when choosing which secessionist movements to support. Why are the Spanish still in Basque country? Or Catalonia? Why are the English still in Wales? Why is Sweden in Lappland? I don't happen to think that every borderline between dominant relgions, languages, or cultures (whatever that term means) deserves to be international. In fact, the American experience (and conversely, European) would tend to argue against it. There's no real international support for the Chechens outside the Muslim world, and independence would mean little, sandwiched as they are. I'd think the last thing the Caucasus needs is a passel of new microstates, which would necessarily be dependent economically and politically on Russia. Autonomy in line with other Russian Federation constituent republics seems a more logical deal. The only thing they can't get that way is their Islamic sharia-law state, and as an argument for independence, that one doesn't appeal much to me.
posted by dhartung at 9:25 PM on October 26, 2002

concerning operation details: babelfish translated russian article
posted by xq at 9:26 PM on October 26, 2002

There have to be talks.

The suicide terrorists got their wishes: Uncountable eternal virgins with which to copulate and to wallow eternally in rose-scented baths, and the Russian cops got their wish: extermination of suicide terrorists. Everybody wins.

One does not negotiate with terrorists under any circumstances.
posted by hama7 at 1:40 AM on October 27, 2002

And according to recent developments, the Russians used something that was not "sleeping gas", and the casualties are increasing. Not good.
posted by hama7 at 2:18 AM on October 27, 2002

it appears that the russians screwed up terribly

Have you had experience in hostage negotiations, andrew? I haven't myself, so I'd love to hear about your work in the field.

more hostages than hostage-takers died.

What does that imply? If there had been just one hostage-taker who had rigged all the explosives himself would that have made the outcome even worse? What if there were 200 hostage takers - would that have been better?
posted by shoos at 4:12 AM on October 27, 2002

It's increasingly clear that they utilized the services of Moscow's Diggers, a quasi-professional group of spelunkers who've explored the Metro, sewers, bunkers, and other tunnel systems that extend under most of the city. June thread.

Experts suspect Valium gas. Valium? AKA diazepam, it's actually -- like atropine -- a treatment and preventive against chemical agents as well as possibly having its own uses. Mostly conspiracy fodder, but there's some real reporting on US non-lethal weaponry studies. If you didn't like that Al Martin spaghetti, you could try a Counterpunch article on calmatives from last month, with clickable sources. The Sunshine Project has been documenting what they feel are violations of the Chemical Weapons Convention by Pentagon non-lethal weapons research, and had already planned to make a stink about it at the recently-concluded OPCW annual conference of states parties (apparently they were rebuffed; nothing was said of this in the report). The US, to be sure, is seeking to push the envelope (and even petition for an OPCW ruling, perhaps ultimately an amendment to the convention itself) permitting them to research these as riot-control agents (explicitly permitted, as long as effects are temporary) rather than warfare agents (riot-control agents in warfare are prohibited). Certainly, if this was the US plan, the Moscow raid may have made that political path somewhat steeper. Certainly, fewer scientists will be politically able to argue that calmatives are 99% non-lethal, even if that's what their own research shows.
posted by dhartung at 5:00 AM on October 27, 2002

dhartung mentions several other instances of independence movements, none of which are actually similar to Chechyna.

In Spain, both the Basque region and Catalonia are recognised states within the country. ETA are the terrorist arm of a movement demanding complete separation of the Basque region from Spain and France. Catalonia is also increasingly keen on greater autonomy from Madrid.

Wales has its own Assembly but would like more autonomy, in line with Scotland's more devolved Parliament (some Welsh Nationalists believe in taking direct action against any English living in the country).
Sadly, the Northern Ireland Assembly has been suspended again, due to failures in the peace process. The countries within the United Kingdom are increasingly devolving into autonomous states within the UK.

In contrast, Chechyna is not and has not been recognised as having any rights to self-governence. As has already been pointed out here, the reduction in IRA terrorism (and it has reduced dramatically since the 1970s and 80s), came when there was a recognition that Ulster must have self-governence. As is obvious from the repeated suspensions of Stourmont, this isn't a quick and easy solution, but by introducing dialogue the chances of peace have been greatly increased. Russia and Chechyna's political and military standoff reminds me very much of the standoff between Republican and Loyalist factions in Ulster in the 80s, with neither side willing to cede ground and instead perpetuating a cycle of destruction.
posted by anyanka at 5:13 AM on October 27, 2002

So, uh, was this gas from a chemical warfare program?
posted by inksyndicate at 9:23 AM on October 27, 2002

Chechyna is not and has not been recognised as having any rights to self-governence.

Really? Is that why the Council of Europe voted in April 2000 to *kick Russia out* if it didn't commit to a ceasefire and talks with Chechen rebels? Come on, I think Russian political pressure might have something to do with the lack of formal recognition or "real international support," anyanka and dhartung. Hell, one of Bush's first foreign policy moves was to piss off Putin by inviting the Chechen "foreign minister" over for tea at the White House.

You two might find this 1999 Heritage Foundation report interesting. Conservatives in the U.S. have been arguing for Chechen independence for a while now.

One does not negotiate with terrorists under any circumstances.

hama7, "negotiating with terrorists" is exactly what the British did in Ireland, the French did in Algeria, and as noted just above, Bush did with the Chechens. Acts of civilian terror from violent wings of rebel movements will always be despicable, but using those acts to utterly avoid dealing with the politics of rebellion in colonial situations is absurd. You really ought to study history before speaking in such certain platitudes.
posted by mediareport at 9:29 AM on October 27, 2002

As predicted, the death count rises. And "150 [hostages]who are in intensive care".

"'They are hostages again,' one of the relatives shouted to the armed guards behind the gate" at one of the hospitals.

So much for using death ratios to determine the success of a rescue.
posted by DBAPaul at 10:17 AM on October 27, 2002

Wow. All but one of the hostage deaths was due to whatever mix of gases they used? That does seem fucked up, until I remember that some of the hostages themselves said they believed they were going to die no matter what. The producer of the play is quoted in your article, DBAPaul, saying one of the women hostage-takers "gave him a prayer written in Arabic, suggesting that he read it to purify himself before death."

I can't help thinking about those huge explosives in the theater chairs. Gas makes sense as a solution, even if the emerging details make it look like the execution may have been seriously bungled. And there's no excuse for not telling doctors immediately what was in the gas.
posted by mediareport at 10:28 AM on October 27, 2002

In the Caucasus, you can travel 20 miles, cross a ridge, and find a "unique language and culture". Ingushetia, Ossetia, Dagestan ... The Chechen resistance has been more persistent in the last decade, but I'm not sure that's the sole criterion to use when choosing which secessionist movements to support.

dhartung: Your first point is of course true, though some areas (like most of Dagestan) are heavily mixed and some (like Chechnya) are uniform (not counting the Russians). But the Chechens have not been "more persistent" merely in the last decade, but for the last two centuries and more. To quote Anatol Lieven (Chechnya p. 304):
For the entire period from 1785 to the present in the Eastern Caucasus has been essentially one long struggle by the Chechens against Russian domination, interspersed with unstable truces and periods of sullen and unwilling submission. Regularly suppressed, the Chechens just as regularly rose up again whenever Russian or Soviet power faltered or oppression became too acute to bear.
The Ingush and Ossetes have no such record of resistance; in fact, the Ingush and Chechens were one people (they speak the same language and have the same social structure) until the 19th century, when the villages now called "Ingush" sided with the Russians and the holdouts came to be known as "Chechens" (after the Russian name of one of their villages, Bolshoi Chechen). As for "choosing which secessionist movements to support," I wouldn't go so far as to say they don't give a rat's ass who you support -- obviously, the more international support, the better -- but they're much more concerned with forcing the Russians to let them go, as the Algerians forced the French to leave. In the end, the only way to do that is to keep the pressure on, to make staying so costly for the Kremlin that it will give up. This makes for some unpleasant scenes, but it may prove effective. And before you equate condemning it with taking the Russian side, read up on what the Russians are doing in Chechnya.

Latest report: "All but one of the 118 hostages so far confirmed dead in the Moscow theater siege died of gas poisoning, the city's top medical examiner said Sunday." Maybe negotiation should have been taken more seriously?
posted by languagehat at 11:10 AM on October 27, 2002

XQUZYPHYR: the terrorist with explosives strapped to them had their fingers on their triggers at all times; if the spec ops just came in and started shooting, the bombs would have been detonated and everyone would have died. The only way to neutralize the terrorists before they knew what was going on, so that they couldn't hit the triggers, was to use the gas.
And how could those Chechens seriously think that Russia would cease a war just because of the remote possibility of all severall hundred people in the theatre dying? I don't know, it seems kind of silly to me.
posted by ac at 12:36 PM on October 27, 2002

For the Russians, the number of people who died in this disaster needs to be weighed against the people who would die in future hostage situations. By dealing forcefully and ruthlessly in this case, they've made it clear to the Chechens that hostages taking is not an effective means of warfare. Perhaps this experience will serve as a deterrant to future hostage taking enterprises.

I think that this was the best solution for the Russians given the circumstances..

It seems that a new method of waging war has emerged in the last half century, one in which a smaller, less powerful adversary can employ unconventional tools like terrorism and hostage-taking to manipulate the policy of a more powerful party. But the effectiveness of these tactics is directly related to how averse the larger country might be to sustaining casualties. If the Russians aren't afraid of killing their own ciitzens, then hostage taking is a much less effective tool.
posted by mert at 12:44 PM on October 27, 2002

Terrorism loses again.

Anyone who thinks there was a "winner" in this situation has a hideously juvenile misunderstanding of the word.

And oh my, another nation or two stockpiling chemical weapons for domestic use.

When do we invade?
posted by fold_and_mutilate at 2:19 PM on October 27, 2002

Gas? How about those Afhanistan caves?

How can we *not* have a gas that disables but doesn't really harm? Better than whatever these Russians used. I kept thinking that when we were bombing or sending troops.
posted by Grand Wahzoo at 2:34 PM on October 27, 2002

Will everyone who keeps putting Terrorism loses again in italics and then talking about there being no winner please pull your heads out of each other's asses or point to where I said there was a winner in this situation? This crisis could have ended any number of ways where the terrorists would have considered it a victory. This wasn't one of them. Terrorism lost. Again.
posted by David Dark at 3:02 PM on October 27, 2002

so everyone lost. why are you so happy about that? (the number of losers appears to be rising).
posted by andrew cooke at 3:22 PM on October 27, 2002

No, Andrew, nearly 700 people were spared.
posted by shoos at 3:48 PM on October 27, 2002

Setting aside that there are hostages who aren't in their graves today solely because of the rescue mission, and setting aside that whenever terrorism loses, it's a good thing... let's play a new game, andrew. Point to where I said I was so happy about anything.
posted by David Dark at 3:58 PM on October 27, 2002

I don't see why people are making out that the fact that the Russians used a chemical rather than some other physical means to get the hostages freed?

Does anyone here have reason to believe that the outcome would have been better if they'd used bullets and grenades?
posted by shoos at 4:04 PM on October 27, 2002

that should read, rather
"I don't see why people are making this fuss about the fact that the Russians used a chemical rather than some other physical means to get the hostages freed.
posted by shoos at 5:56 PM on October 27, 2002

I understand the fuss, shoos; it seems like it was much too wide-barrel an approach. I'm sure if your lover/partner/parent/child/friend had died, the same thought would be crossing your mind.

Still, those massive explosives in those chairs and the suicide bombers wired to go off at the touch of a button sure do have me wondering what other options the folks here would like to have explored. Negotiations? The terrorists were the ones that set the Saturday morning deadline, and then started shooting people, were they not?
posted by mediareport at 6:12 PM on October 27, 2002

amberglow: Why is it untenable?

Whether Chechnya should be independent or not, rewarding violence will set a horrible precedent that will only bring more and more violence.
posted by nobody_knose at 6:23 PM on October 27, 2002

mediareport: I would expect that even the hostages' families were reconciled to the desperation of the situation and that most do not feel there were any other rescue options that would have clearly been better. The 'wide-barrel' approach may well have been the best.
posted by shoos at 6:39 PM on October 27, 2002

A few of the survivors have reported that they feel the Chechnyan terrorists were going to kill everyone regardless the outcome, ie.) that had Russia buckled in to their demands, they'd have executed everyone anyway.

I think the Western media is trying to make Russia seem like the bad guy. I hope that most people have observed the explosives, noted the suicide bomber attitude, and understand that had the army stormed the building, there'd have been a whole lot of people being blown up into small drops of mush.

It's a real shame 120(?)-odd people died in the gas attack, but two things were accomplished:
* 700-odd people were saved.
* Chechnyan terrorists are less likely to pull the same stunt again, saving countless other people.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:51 PM on October 27, 2002

Anyone who thinks there was a "winner" in this situation has a hideously juvenile misunderstanding of the word.

For once, fold_and_mutilate, you've entered a judgement with which I can largely agree.

I do think the survivors and their families -- when it's all sorted out -- will consider it a win, but not the families of victims. For Russia, it may have been a Pyrrhic victory, as this will surely strengthen the hawks' hands in dealing with Chechnya, Putin's political reputation, and the power of the federal security services -- which can't bode well for Russian democractic progress.

But then the Chechens were successful in doing what terrorism so often is meant to do: to give the enemy, Russia, a choice between bad and worse. They chose bad. But the terrorists also lost in that they failed to realize that when you give your opponent no choice but act ruthlessly, you shouldn't be surprised when they do. The thinking surely must have been that Russians, or at least Muscovites, had become liberal, one might say soft, and perfect victims for this sort of manipulation -- like Americans in 1979, perhaps. In that, they grossly miscalculated.

As mert says, Unconventional Warfare is becoming a normal way of war. Still, it remains wedded to principles divined by Napoleon that success lies in making your enemy do what you want.

mediareport: It appears that the two people shot in the early morning were victims of an overreaction by some of the gunmen when a child threw a tantrum and threw something across the theater. I don't know if the people shot were related to the child. The Russians staged an elaborate fake-out, leaking a 3am raid time, which put the Chechens on alert, then timing the gassing and real raid for 5am, around the time the terrorists' adrenaline would have subsided (and sleepiness might have initially seemed natural to them). They also turned off GSM encryption for the immediately local cells, permitting security forces to monitor voice and text messaging; apparently there was a lot of SMS going in and out through the whole crisis -- and accomplices on the outside were reporting on troop movements and equipment.
posted by dhartung at 8:55 PM on October 27, 2002

The Slaughter in Moscow

In the eight years that they have wrestled over control of Chechnya, the Russian government and Chechen rebels have descended ever deeper into a hellhole of brutish behavior. The two sides reached a new low over the weekend in their deadly showdown at a crowded Moscow theater that a band of heavily armed rebels had seized earlier in the week. The number of dead hostages and rebels is still being tallied, but it is already abundantly clear that the rebels and government forces once again disgraced themselves. The Kremlin and the guerrillas should come to their senses and settle a conflict that has left thousands of civilians dead and shamed Russian and Chechen leaders alike.

The latest outrage was provoked by Chechen separatists on Wednesday evening when they took control of the large theater and the more than 750 people assembled there to see a popular musical. The Chechen fighters — properly described by the Russian authorities as terrorists — threatened to start killing their hostages Saturday morning if President Vladimir Putin did not begin withdrawing Russian forces from Chechnya, an ethnic enclave in southern Russia that has been a bloody battleground since Moscow tried to crush the Chechen independence movement in 1994. The Kremlin initially responded to the seizure of the theater by trying to negotiate a peaceful resolution, then assaulted the complex early Saturday morning.

As in so many other violent incidents in the Chechen conflict, it appeared yesterday that both the rebels and Russian security forces badly miscalculated. The Chechens, as has been their custom, relied on terrorism to advance objectives that can only be achieved through political negotiation. Their willingness to murder civilians, including reports that they had begun the killing of hostages before dawn on Saturday, left the Kremlin with no choice but to try to free the theatergoers. The methods chosen, however, seemed to be drawn from crude security manuals written under Soviet rule. As they began their assault, antiterrorist teams pumped a powerful disabling gas into the theater that ended up killing at least 116 hostages. The government compounded the horror by failing to provide adequate medical care at the site. The resulting mess and effort to gloss over it were reminiscent of clumsy Soviet attempts to deal with domestic crises like the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986.

By now, the litany of depraved conduct in this conflict almost defies belief, including the rebel seizure of a Russian hospital in 1995 and a Russian town in 1996 and Moscow's indiscriminate attacks on Grozny, the Chechen capital, and other population centers. Mr. Putin rode to power by launching a second war against the rebels in 1999.

The international war against terrorism, and strong evidence that some Chechen rebels have received training and support from Al Qaeda, has emboldened Mr. Putin to equate his struggle against the guerrillas with America's campaign against Osama bin Laden and his followers. While there are common elements, the Chechens have some legitimate grievances about a long history of harsh Russian rule. Mr. Putin should recognize that he cannot end their insurrection through force alone. If the United States wants to be helpful, it should not give Mr. Putin a pat on the back after this debacle and tell him we are all fighting the same enemy.

posted by y2karl at 9:22 PM on October 27, 2002


Yes, I believe that captures it nicely, y2karl.

*squints some more*

I think.
posted by mediareport at 10:40 PM on October 27, 2002

*squints some more*

Same size as the body text here on my monitor.
It's not like it's as tiny as your typical blog font, either...
posted by y2karl at 4:20 AM on October 28, 2002

also, Russian gas use a mistake, former Soviet expert says

According to medical sources quoted by Russian television this morning, 145 people were still in intensive care and 45 in a serious state after the siege which ended Saturday.

This part of the story is far from over.
posted by y2karl at 5:46 AM on October 28, 2002

Even if, theoretically, gas was the best of the bad options available, it was inexcusable that 1) they didn't have medical help available right outside the theater, and 2) they refused to tell doctors what had been used and how to neutralize it. Russia still has large pockets of the Soviet Union, particularly in the security services.

But the terrorists also lost in that they failed to realize that when you give your opponent no choice but act ruthlessly, you shouldn't be surprised when they do.

dhartung: Of course they realized that, and they weren't the least bit surprised (well, maybe by the gas, but not by the ruthlessness). They want the Russians to act ruthlessly; it's a good way to affect world opinion.
posted by languagehat at 9:27 AM on October 28, 2002

Since we don't yet know the identity of the gas, it still might turn out that the use of the gas and how things were handled afterwards were not egregious mistakes.
posted by shoos at 5:39 PM on October 28, 2002

Will everyone who keeps putting Terrorism loses again in italics and then talking about there being no winner please pull your heads out of each other's asses or point to where I said there was a winner in this situation?

Pull your own head out, but watch out for your legs as you do: you're backpedalling oh so fast.

This crisis could have been prevented or handled any number of ways, where there wouldn't be this kind of incredible tragedy and ongoing misery that you didn't mind reducing to a simpleminded "terrorism loses again."

Ask the hostage families, "Who lost?" Ask Chechen and Russian families who've lost loved ones over the years of this conflict, "Who lost?"

Just curious... were you walking around on 9/11 reducing the events of that day to "America loses again?" Or did you think the situation might possibly be a tad more complex than that? What's the latest score in Chechnya today after another Russian helicopter got shot down? Do we score this solely by body count, or does one side get extra points for using higher tech weapons? Are you going to give us an updated score every day? Or will you just update us when one or the other of the "teams" in this silly little game of yours scores a touchdown that only you can see, and that happens to coincide with your own tribalistic worldview?

What a piece of work.
posted by fold_and_mutilate at 2:53 AM on October 31, 2002

Bullshit, foldy. I'm not backpedaling, you crackpot, at least not in reality, but only in your twisted mind where you've assigned motivations that don't exist. I simply reported facts, and anyone who thought they read glee into my comments, or assumed that by using the word "loses" I also implied "wins" to the other side, was taking great leaps of latitude with my words. At the time I posted this story, details were still sketchy, which is exactly why I refrained from calling this a "great victory against terrorism." Those were not my words, as you well know. I said, "It's still unclear how many of the hostages were killed..." but wanted to let anyone who may have been enduring sleepless nights because of a close friend or relative stuck in that theatre know that at least the 71 foreign hostages had been reported safe. I reserved judgment for a later date when more information would surely become available. That can only be construed as backpedaling if you've vaulted me forward in your own mind to a position I never claimed to hold.

This wasn't a game to anyone except the terrorists; they were the ones counting on a victory. They didn't achieve their goals, and at the time, that's pretty much all I knew. Terrorism lost. You're right, it's a simple statement, and one that I thought even an old cynic like yourself could grasp, but with all that methane gas clogging up your olfactory senses, I can understand your confusion. It does no good to stand on a soapbox with your head where it is; you could stand on a mountaintop and still all you'd see is shit.

This crisis could have been prevented or handled any number of ways, where there wouldn't be this kind of incredible tragedy and ongoing misery...

Really? Reach into that crystal ball and pull out a concrete theory of how you would have handled this situation to the benefit of everyone involved. I'd love to hear it, but I won't be holding my breath. You don't have it in you; practical solutions aren't your strong point. You're a condemner, a pessimist quick to point out the faults in the framework without ever providing a coherent solution to those who actually built the damn thing.

What a piece of shit.

I remember, the day before the Russian forces went in, my girlfriend said to me, "Those poor people in that theatre. What can be done?" I didn't know the answer, and I said so. I prayed for the innocents caught in the middle of the conflict, and hoped that somehow their lives would be spared. But, deep down, I had a sinking feeling that 700 people were about to meet their maker at the hands of some pissed off Chechens clinging to the end of their collective rope. Whenever a nut job straps explosives to his chest and takes a great many people hostage for his own agenda, the only thing you can be sure of is that it's not going to end well. It was a lose-lose situation from the beginning, as these things typically are. Are you so obtuse that you need me to spell that out for you?

As dhartung said, the Chechens gave the enemy a choice between bad and worse. They chose bad. And while some hostages were killed, others were saved. If every single hostage ends up dying as a result of the gas used to keep the terrorists from ending the whole fiasco with a bang of blood and fire, I still believe that the Russians at least tried to give the hostages a chance to live. If they didn't give a shit about trying to save the hostages, their alternative was to put their hands in their pockets and whistle in the wind as the terrorists flipped the switch and took care of themselves. Suicide bombers are a self-solving problem if innocent lives don't matter to you.

This was a tragedy, and like any tragedy, once the wheels of fate are set in motion there's no turning back the clock. As soon as the Chechens took over the building, they were already dead. The only remaining question was how many others were going to die with them. The Russian solution may not have been perfect, and we simpletons are all very thankful to have a genius like yourself point that out to us, but in a lose-lose situation, an imperfect plan is better than no plan at all.
posted by David Dark at 1:43 PM on November 2, 2002

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