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Russians Remember Slain Hostages at Dubrovka Theater on First Anniversary of Seige

Russians are observing the first anniversary of the Dubrovka theater hostage-taking by Chechen rebels that ended in the death of 130 people.

Former hostages and family members of victims filed quietly past the new 10-meter-tall granite memorial to place flowers, candles, and personal photographs at its base. The memorial is topped by three bronze flying cranes, a symbol of sorrow in Russia.

A short distance away, on the front wall of the theater, is a new plaque inscribed with the names of the more than 100 hostages who died in the siege, mostly from a deadly dose of the knock-out gas used by Russian special forces in storming the building to free the hostages.

All the Chechens were killed on the scene.

Recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin disputed critics' claims that the government is to blame for the casualties. He said the gas was harmless and the the hostages died because of weakened immune systems and the stress resulting from their three-day ordeal.

But this woman, whose sister was among the dead, is offended by that suggestion. She says she is left to care for her sister's son while the government has not had to answer how such a deadly gas was used, or why doctors were not better informed about what to expect.

She says she has only one question: how did they dare to use this terrible drug gas? If only Mayor [of Moscow Yuri] Luzkhov or President Putin's daughters were here, she asks, would they then have used the gas in this situation?

Others, like this woman, whose daughter was one of two hostages shot by the Chechen gunmen, were more conciliatory.

Talking through tears, the mother says she wants everyone to live in peace and an end to all war. This is the most important thing, she says.

The Dubrovka hostage crisis renewed international attention on the conflict in Chechnya, where Russian forces have been fighting separatist rebels for the the past nine years.

The rebels say they are fighting for independence. But President Putin has said they have ties to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network and are no better than the terrorists.

President Putin was not present at the theater ceremony, but he mentioned it while opening Russia's first military base in Central Asia since the collapse of Communism.

President Putin says the Dubrovka theater tragedy left a deep wound that will not heal for a long time. He also called for continued vigilance against ongoing terrorism.