Sun, Oct 19, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Kremlin draws veil over theater siege in Moscow

VICTIMS OF TERRORISM A year after Russian troops gassed a group of Chechen gunmen and their hostages, victims' relatives are still searching for explanations

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Relatives of the victims of the Moscow theatre siege, which ended when Russian troops gassed the Chechen gunmen and 800 hostages a year ago, suspect the true casualty figure may be much higher than the official total and are demanding information from a tight-lipped Kremlin.

Officially 129 hostages and 40 Chechen gunmen died when a knockout gas was used to disable those inside the theatre, which had been taken over on Oct. 23 by armed separatists threatening to kill the entire audience of the musical Nord Ost if Russia did not withdraw its troops from Chechnya. But 12 months later a veil of secrecy still surrounds the ending of the siege.

Relatives still do not know how many people died when Russian special forces ended the three-day siege at 5.50am on October 26. They are also angry because the government refuses to admit their relatives died because of the potency of the gas. The death certificate refers to each as a "victim of terrorism," claiming they died from heart attacks or other physical ailments.

Fears over the true number of victims are focused on an album of photographs of the dead seen by many relatives at a morgue in the Lefortovo region of Moscow used by the Russian security service, the FSB. The morgue in Lefortovo was only one of a number of places to which the dead were taken.

The days after the assault on the theatre, relatives went between hospitals and morgues across the Russian capital searching for their family members who had been transferred there directly from the theatre.

Although around half of the survivors were taken to Hospital 13, the remaining dead and wounded were sent to at least three other hospitals or morgues. Lists of the survivors were posted on hospital gates. Photo albums of the dead were prepared at the morgues.

Parents searching for their loved ones in each morgue were shown a file containing the faces of the theatre dead that were held there. According to some relatives, the Lefortovo file contained 140 photographs.

Irina Khramtsova, whose father Fedor, 45, died in the siege, said: "The day of the assault nobody knew about the Lefortovo morgue. As a result, on Oct. 26, a lot of people were running from one morgue to another without finding their relatives. Those who visited the Lefortovo morgue were shown, as in the other morgues, a special album, entitled Nord Ost, where there were photos of the dead bodies, each numbered."

Dmitri Milovidov, who lost his 14-year-old daughter Nina, said: "A lot of people have seen this album, and we would like to see it again. But everything is kept in secrecy. We were not even allowed to see the bodies of our children. They were wrapped up with only the tips of the hands and legs, together with their faces, exposed. We don't know who died from bullets, and who from the gas."

Even if the 140 in Lefortovo included all 40 Chechen gunmen and women, who entered the theatre with explosives strapped to their bodies, it would still mean that 100 dead hostages were kept in Lefortovo. This would suggest the final death toll was a lot higher than the official figure of 129, a gross embarrassment for the Kremlin. A presidential spokesman declined to comment.

Fears have also grown because lists of those suspected of being in the theatre have been published on the Internet at www.zalozhniki.ru. One says 137 hostages were killed, although some familiar with the seven new names say their relatives have failed to provide proof to support their claims. Another list says there were 979 people in the theatre, another that 67 people are still unaccounted for.

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