Theater Siege, Three Years Later

By CBS News Moscow correspondent Beth Knobel.



Three years later, the pain is still fresh. The sense of loss still deep. Three years ago today, Russian forces stormed a Moscow theater that had been seized by Chechen rebels.

More than 900 people had been taken hostage including actors, musicians and the entire audience. The hostage takers demanded that the Russian government end the bloody war in Chechnya.

After three days of fruitless negotiations, security forces pumped a narcotic gas into the theater, knocking everyone inside unconscious. Police rushed in and shot each terrorist dead, then started to help the hostages.

But the medical part of the rescue was a disaster. There were too few doctors and ambulances, and no one had the antidote for the gas. With better planning, nearly everyone inside would have gotten out alive. Instead, at least 130 people died in the chaos.

The victims' families are still trying to find out why the potentially successful operation to free their loved ones here was botched so badly. Though they still have whole lists of questions, the Russian government has been very short on answers.

Russian President Vladimir Putin says the gas used was harmless, and that people died from pre-existing conditions.

But Tatiana Karpova doesn't buy it. She lost her son in the theater and now heads up the group of victims' families.

She says that the Russian government has given her group nothing but the runaround. There's been no independent report on the tragedy, and the amount of government compensation was barely enough for a funeral.

"Why won't our president look us in the eyes and tell us the truth about what went wrong?" she says. "They're doing everything they can to hide the facts."

Svetlana Gubareva lost her American fiancé, Sandy Booker, and her 13-year-old daughter, Sasha.

"What happened in the theater was a crime," she says, "and the guilty must be punished. The most important thing to me now, as it's been for the past three years, is to find out the truth and make sure whoever was responsible is punished.

The victims' list of complaints is long: That the government has failed to provide for the children made orphans by the siege. That it hasn't compensated families who lost their main breadwinner. That the medical care for those who survived has been inadequate.

But the biggest problem, they say, is the government's indifference. And that's something the victims' families say they'll never stop fighting to change.

By Beth Knobel
  • Bob Bicknell

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