The United States is calling on the Chechen rebels in Moscow to release their remaining hostages unconditionally and unharmed. At least two U.S. citizens are among those being held in the theater in the Russian capital.
In its most detailed comments on the Moscow standoff, the State Department expressed deep concern about the hostages, and said they must be released immediately, unconditionally and unharmed.
A spokeswoman said the seizure of the theater was clearly an act of terrorism, and that there can be no justification ever for kidnapping and killing innocent civilians, no matter what cause the perpetrators may espouse.
She said the United States recognizes the Chechen people have legitimate grievances and concerns, but that engaging in terrorist acts in pursuit of legitimate political objectives only discredits the Chechen cause and impedes if not sets back achievement of a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
The spokeswoman further said the lack of a political solution in Chechnya, and what were termed "credible" reports of "massive" human rights violations there, have helped create a "favorable environment" for terrorism.
She said it remains the U.S. view that a political settlement is the only means of bringing a lasting peace to the region and denying terrorists an excuse for their acts.
Officials here said information about the Moscow hostage-takers is sketchy but that they appear to be led by a figure connected to the extremist wing of the Chechen separatist movement.
They said some of those militants are known to have international terrorist affiliations. But they also said there is no direct evidence of a link to the theater takeover by the al-Qaida terror network.
President Bush called Russian President Vladimir Putin Thursday to express support and solidarity and to offer U.S. assistance.
The two were to have met Saturday in Mexico on the sidelines of the APEC summit of Pacific-rim countries, but Mr. Putin cancelled his Mexico trip because of the hostage crisis.
U.S. officials say they have gotten no information as to the well-being of the two, or perhaps three, Americans among the hostages in the theater.
They said the U.S. embassy in Moscow is following the situation closely and in regular contact with Russian authorities.