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Rebels Demand Removal of Troops, Threaten to Begin Killing Hostages

By Peter Baker and Susan B. Glasser

Declaring their readiness to die for their cause, Chechen rebels holding a theater audience of up to 700 people captive in the heart of Moscow threatened Thursday to begin killing them if Russia doesn’t withdraw troops from the breakaway southern republic of Chechnya within a week.

One person was killed in the initial assault Wednesday night. President Vladimir Putin linked the attack on the theater to international terrorism and canceled plans to travel to Mexico to meet with President Bush at an Asian-Pacific economic summit this weekend. He made no move toward meeting the Chechens’ demand.

At least three Americans are among the hostages, who are being guarded by as many as 50 masked guerrillas armed with assault rifles and explosives strapped to their bodies.

“I swear by God we are more keen on dying than you are keen on living,” an unidentified hostage-taker said in a video shown on the Arabic-language television network al-Jazeera. “Each one of us is willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of God and the independence of Chechnya.”

“Even if we are killed, thousands of brothers and sisters will come after us, ready to sacrifice themselves,” a female militant, her face covered except for her eyes, said in the same broadcast.

On Thursday afternoon, on-again, off-again negotiations brought the release of five hostages, and the rebels later released the body of a woman in her twenties who authorities said was shot to death in the early hours of the crisis when she defied her captors.

Sporadic gunfire and explosions were heard from the scene at various points Thursday, but reports were sketchy about what was happening. At one point, Russian media reported that militants fired rocket-propelled grenades out the window of the theater as two young women were making their escape, injuring a Russian soldier.

Hundreds of heavily armed Russian troops, police officers and special forces surrounded the theater but held back from storming the building, located in southeast Moscow, three miles from the Kremlin. Reports indicated that about 45 children remained inside the theater.

The hostage crisis gripped Russia, which has not seen such a dangerous standoff in the middle of its capital since the tumultuous early 1990s.

More than 24 hours into the ordeal, a few hostages inside the theater managed to call out on cellular telephones to report on the deteriorating atmosphere inside. “The tension is escalating,” said one of them, Maria Shkolnikova. “The demands of the terrorists are turning into an ultimatum.”