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Russian Special Forces End Moscow Hostage Standoff - 2002-10-26

Russia's special forces swooped in under the cover of darkness Saturday to take control of a rapidly deteriorating hostage standoff that had many fearing the worst. Hours later, the streets were bustling amid a massive cleanup launched in the same lightning-quick fashion of the overnight raid.

Weary looking but satisfied military and special police lumbered away from the theater to awaiting buses, after days of perching on rooftops and crouching behind armored personnel carriers.

Ambulances 10 and 12 deep, blue lights flashing and sirens wailing, rushed off toward hospitals. While on the roads leading in and out of the site in a gritty Russian neighborhood, police set up blockades and barriers.

Moscow's deputy mayor, Valery Shantsev, was the first to brief reporters shortly after daybreak. He said he had personally seen the camouflage clad body of the gunmen's leader, Movsar Barayev, covered in blood.

Mr. Shantsev also said it was clear to him that some of the hostage-takers were, "foreigners, or non-Chechens."

Curious civilians wandered out cautiously Saturday to try to shake off the shock and seek answers to nagging questions like how could such a thing have happened.

A woman VOA spoke with was firm in her belief that Russian authorities should have reacted sooner and with fuller force.

At the same time, she said, she had complete confidence the Russian government, and the nation would take away from the four days some hard-learned lessons. She then burst into tears.

The woman then collected herself and said there should be tougher controls and checks in the future even to extreme measures, if necessary.

Democracy won't suffer, she said, adding that future lives could even be saved.

Shortly after the building was stormed, Russian television broadcast the first pictures of pale and exhausted survivors. Many of the former hostages were unconscious or in visible shock, and had to be carried to awaiting ambulances that would rush them to hundreds of hospitals across Moscow.

President Vladimir Putin, who has been holed up in the Kremlin since the standoff began late Wednesday, ventured out to visit the survivors at midday. Wearing a white hospital coat, Mr. Putin went ward to ward to offer his wishes for a speedy recovery to all.

Meanwhile, back at the theater, 47-year-old housewife Natalya Nemtsova hunts feverishly for word of her sister.

She says she has been going around to numerous hospitals. But she says that so far, she has had no luck in finding her. Natalya says she has begun sending computer messages to government officials in desperation, but holds out little hope for an immediate answer.

Natalya was one of hundreds of visibly shaken and worn-out relatives of the former hostages, many of whom were physically supporting each other after nights of no sleep and grief.

The former hostages are not the only ones in shock. This volunteer minister with Russia's church of Scientology says countless soldiers and special police have come to him for spiritual guidance and hope.

He says people lose all illusions that everything is fine in the country after spending day and night under such stress. He said it is high time to change something especially, he adds, if a tragedy like this can happen in the heart of the capital city.