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Hostage crisis refuels Chechnya debate

The theater standoff may move Russia closer to a US style policy on terrorism.

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Efforts to gain release of some 65 foreigners, including two Americans, were stalled Thursday afternoon. The body of a woman was taken out of the theater yesterday, though details as to the cause of her death were unclear.

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A Chechen rebel-sponsored website claimed responsibility for the raid and said it was under the command of Movsar Barayev, a Chechen warlord whose uncle, Arbi Barayev was killed fighting Russian troops last year.

"This is an almost impossible situation for our security forces," says Maxim Pyadushkin, deputy head of the independent Center for Strategic and Technological Analysis in Moscow. "They are operating in the heart of a metropolis, with little room to maneuver. The eyes of the world are upon them. One has the impression that these terrorists are ready to be martyrs, to blow themselves up with the hostages if the police try to move in."

Chechen rebels have resorted to mass hostage taking in the past, most spectacularly in 1995 when warlord Shamil Basayev seized hundreds of people in a hospital in Budyonnovsk in the south. One hundred civilians died during a botched attempt by Russian security forces to storm the building.

The following year another warlord, Salman Raduyev, took several hundred hostages in Kizlyar, a town in the republic of Dagestan, which abuts Chechnya, and managed to bring scores of them back to Chechnya despite being shadowed and bombarded by Russian security forces.

Both episodes humiliated the Kremlin and led to a collapse of public support for the war effort. "One has the impression that nothing has been learned after Budyonnovsk," Arkady Baskayev, Russian military commandant in the Chechen capital Grozny during the first Chechen war in 1995, told Echo Moskvi radio. "How on earth could it happen that a fully equipped detachment of Chechen rebels entered the heart of Moscow and seized a large building full of people?"

Among the possible fallout to this hostage crisis is a sharp escalation of ethnic tensions in diverse Russia, especially treatment of the 100,000-strong Chechen diaspora in Moscow. Since 1999, local Chechens have been subjected to special security measures, such as fingerprinting, and human rights organizations have reported numerous cases of Chechens being beaten and robbed by Moscow police.

"This is likely to antagonize interethnic relations...." says Pavel Ivanov, an expert with the Institute of National Security and Strategic Research in Moscow. "I think we must fear the worst consequences from this shock."

International implications of the hostage shock are so far unclear, but Russian experts say the situation may make Russia more cooperative with the tough US position, in the midst of a crucial UN Security Council debate on how to deal with Iraq. "Our relations with the US are likely to improve as a result of this," says Yury Kryshin, president of the official Military History Research Association. "A sense of solidarity with Americans will grow, and this will certainly influence our position on Iraq."