Photos of the victims of the 2002 Nord-Ost hostage crisis at the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow. Source: Photoshot / Vostok Photo
Twelve years ago, Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater became the site of one of the worst terrorist attacks in Russian history. Forty Chechen militants, led by Movsar Barayev, took 916 people hostage and engaged in a three-day stand-off with Russian special forces soldiers from Oct. 23-26, 2002. The siege ended when security forces used a special gas to incapacitate the terrorists and stormed the building. One-hundred and thirty hostages died in the operation, including 10 children.
Here is an account of those events from an officer in the Directorate A (also known as Alpha Group) of the Special-Purpose Center under the Russian Federal Security Service, who took part in that operation. For security reasons, his name has been changed.
"I received the emergency call in the evening, on my way home. I went to the base, got all my gear and set off for Dubrovka.
Hostage operations are dealt with by two directorates, A and V. Directorate A usually operates in government buildings, on transportation and in residential areas, while Directorate V looks after technological facilities. That time we worked together.
We began by collecting information. We analyzed the technical documentation on the building, identified locations that were likely to have been mined, and memorized the layout. Upon arriving at a scene, we always analyze the situation, study everything, but we do not move.
The first actions are always taken by the operation headquarters, which conducts negotiations. In any operation, our actions are the last resort.
My group was tasked with reconnaissance and identifying ways of entering the building. Part of the group went to the roof, while the others went down to the basement. It soon became clear that Barayev’s group were far from amateurs. They were well-trained terrorists who possessed many military skills and had managed to secure their positions inside the building.
The route down from the roof turned out to be out of the question: It was blocked and mined. It was clear that the group had some good experts in mines and explosives. Many doors were either mined or prepared to be mined.
The windows were covered in such a way so as not to allow a glimpse of the terrorists’ movements inside. In many places, there was crushed glass strewn on the floor so that operatives could not move without making some noise. Each of the terrorists had their own spot. They were very familiar with the building and, in addition to the packed and mined main hall, controlled all the key spots inside the building.
Difficult talks with the hostage-takers lasted three days. During that time, many people came to help or observe: famous cultural figures, Red Cross officials, Duma deputies, doctors and journalists.
Several people were killed and some 60 hostages released. By that time, a plan for storming the building was ready and the groups were practicing. We already knew that in the center of the main hall and on the balcony, the terrorists had placed two metal cylinders, each with a 152-millimeter fragmentation shell inside, covered with plastic explosives.
We spent a lot of time with the hostages who had been released, trying to collect as much information as possible. In addition, engineering experts found a small, hardly visible, outside wall and dismantled it literally brick by brick. It turned out to be an old entrance that had been bricked up. Through that, our group later entered the building.
At 4:58 on the morning of Oct. 26, a message came through on the radio: “Attention to all! Groups, storm the building!”
Everyone knew his task inside out. My group was at the back of the building. All our efforts were directed at reaching the main hall as quickly as possible. There were several terrorists on the stage, all of them armed. The danger was not only that they could set the bombs off, but also that there were so many automatic rifles.
If the terrorists tried to put up any resistance, many hostages could be killed by automatic rifle fire since we were entering the hall by many different directions. The whole operation lasted not more than 15 minutes. The terrorists were killed.
The hostages inside were unconscious. People were sleeping in the seats, with their mouths open, some were lying on the floor, foaming at the mouth. At the time, we had no idea what effect the gas may have. We learned about 90 minutes before the start of the operation that a gas would be used. We all had gas masks on.
We spent the next 40 minutes, still in full body armor, carrying hostages out. It was hard to breathe, we were all soaking with sweat. It is very difficult to carry people who are unconscious, since their bodies go limp. We carried the hostages on our backs, under our arms. We took them out to the lobby and laid them on their sides.
Before the operation, we were given an antidote to the gas. Once the operation was over, we gave the antidote to the hostages, injecting it with syringes right through the layers of clothing.
Doctors were let into the building 40 minutes later, since it was necessary to disarm all the bombs and mines first. There were mine-disposal experts working in the building.
We could have let the doctors inside the hall, but if the bombs had been set off remotely, from a neighboring building, the death toll would have been far greater. Some people managed to get through the security cordon; doctors were performing CPR on the victims, trying to restart their hearts. The doctors were doing heroic work, but sometimes they were just powerless.
There was no loss of life among security personnel. But, tragically, 130 hostages died. We were left with a certain feeling of frustration, dissatisfaction, although we did all that was in our power to do."
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