MOSCOW, Oct. 26 (UPI) -- In a televised broadcast late Saturday marking the bloody end of Moscow's four-day hostage crisis, Russian President Vladimir Putin labeled as "armed bastards" the Chechen rebels who had seized a theater full of people near the Kremlin, according to a translation provided by the Russian news agency Itar-Tass.
"We have lived through a terrible trial these days," Tass quoted Putin as saying. "All our thoughts were about the people who had fallen into the hands of armed bastards. We hoped for the release of these people, but every one of us was prepared for the worst."
The Chechens, who had been holding some 700 hostages since bursting into the theater Wednesday night, threatened Friday to begin shooting them Saturday morning unless Putin ordered the withdrawal of Russian forces from their Northern Caucasan province. Two male hostages were killed in the early hours of Saturday and Russian special forces, who could hear the gunshots and shouts inside, prepared to rush in.
A dramatic conclusion to the standoff came when the soldiers used an immobilizing gas to take control of the building. Ninety hostages and 50 rebels were killed in the rescue effort, government authorities said, and two Chechens were being held for questioning.
Rebel leader Movsar Barayev, 23, was among the Chechens killed, Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Vasilyev told reporters a few hours after Russian forces stormed in.
None of the explosives the hostage-takers had appeared to strap to their own bodies and around the theater went off, leaving the building, a former Soviet House of Culture, eerily quiet but intact after two harrowing days of conflict.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said none of the hostage casualties were foreigners, Tass reported, adding that area doctors said most of the 450 hostages who were hospitalized following the rescue would be able to go home Sunday.
A disabling gas was used in the rescue effort, "which allowed us to neutralize the terrorists who were holding their fingers on the triggers of the bombs," Vasilyev said.
Vasilyev denied reports that 11 hostages succumbed to the effects of the gas. They had been weakened, he said, "because of the stress, they were hungry, they were not given timely medical assistance while they were held hostage."
However, an independent television station in neighboring Georgia published footage of what was reputedly doctors in a Moscow hospital who said the hostages had died of a neuro-paralyzing gas. Rustavi-2 television said the footage came from Ekho Moskvy journalists who were not allowed to broadcast it in Russia.
Television cameras allowed into the theater building shortly after the hostages had been removed showed several bodies of the hostage-takers as well as explosive devices. Dead Chechen female hostage takers, clad in black and wearing headscarves, were shown in TV footage seated or draped in chairs within the empty theater.
BBC reporter Andrey Medvedev described empty alcohol bottles and syringes littered the interior while Barayev's body was left clearly in view, a bottle of brandy in his hand.
The explosives that had been rigged in several places had been fortified with ball bearings and nails. In one location, explosives appeared to be intended to bring down the ceiling but none detonated.
Russians across the country heaved a breath of relief as the hostage crisis was resolved, but officials warned against a potential outbreak of interethnic hatred against Chechens living across the country.
Russian police will enforce measures nationwide to "prevent spread of anti-Chechen sentiments, inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflicts," Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov was quoted as saying.
On Friday, as the stand-off was peaking with tension between negotiators and the Chechens, a poll showed 53 percent of Muscovites blamed the government for the hostage crisis and only 16 percent blamed the militants themselves. The Moscow-based Russian Public Opinion and Market Research also found at the time that only 16 percent favored storming the building and 66 percent wanted resolution via negotiation.
In the wake of the government's rescue effort it is as yet unclear what kind of longer-term response is in store. Some observers have pointed out the Chechens' desperate attempt to return international attention to their situation may backfire in what popular support their cause garnered in the last three days.
Significantly, perhaps, the same poll that blamed the Russian government also found 25 percent of respondents favored expelling all people of the Russia's Caucasian republics from Moscow.
A Chechen film director living in Georgia told United Press International, "We are sorry for the innocent lives that have been lost," but noted, "We knew that no one was in danger if Russia had met our demands ... We know what it's like because our own people haev died for the past decade day after day."
When asked whether Chechens are afraid of Russian backlash the director, Murat Mazaev, replied, "We no longer have anything to fear. I think everything being done there is already so horrible that nothing worse can be done."
The U.S. State Department called the hostage-taking "clearly an act of terrorism" and said in a statement that "The U.S. condemns terrorist attacks wherever they occur. No political grievance justifies the taking and killing of hostages."
French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin was more temperate, saying, "Although the result was very hard and there were numerous victims, it was a relief for France to learn that the worse was avoided," as reported by Tass.
Russia's Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov immediately briefed Putin on the investigation and pledged that investigators would look for the terrorists' accomplices "in Moscow, Chechnya and abroad."
Gryzlov also reported the capture of about 30 accomplices who abetted the terrorists in Moscow.
Investigators said they still have to find out where the group had stashed weapons, explosives and camouflage uniforms before launching Wednesday's raid, when and how they entered Moscow and on what grounds they obtained temporary residence permits.
(With reporting by Natalia Antelava in Tbilisi, Georgia.)