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Russia mourns, admits mistakes year after theater siege
( 2003-10-24 11:17) (Agencies)

Russians Thursday marked the first anniversary of a deadly Moscow theater siege by Chechen guerrillas in a somber mood darkened further by an admission the operation to free hundreds of hostages was ill-prepared.

The siege, in which 130 theater-goers died mostly from the effects of a knock-out gas used by security forces, became the worst crisis of Vladimir Putin's presidency after the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine in 2000.

A man places a picture of his relative, a victim of last year's deadly theatre siege by Chechen guerrillas, outside the theater in Moscow Oct. 23, 2003. [Reuters]
In Moscow, hundreds of mourners braved autumn's first frost to attend the unveiling of a memorial at the site of the siege in southeast Moscow, a tall white column topped by three bronze cranes in flight, symbolizing the souls of the dead.

"Terrorists will not break us, they will not achieve their goals either in Moscow or in Russia," Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov told the hushed crowd. "Terrorists will never intimidate us."

Putin made the restoration of Russian rule in Chechnya a priority of his presidency. But guerrillas continue to fight in the war-torn northern Caucasus territory and have also taken their campaign for independence into the Russian heartland.

Putin visited the monument after dark after returning to Moscow from a trip to Asia. Russian television showed him walking slowly up to the column, placing a bouquet of dark red roses at its base and pausing briefly before it, his head bowed.

In a rare official admission, a police general blamed the high death toll on chaotic efforts to rescue and treat hundreds of unconscious theater-goers after troops stormed the building.

"Yes, special services did their work professionally, yes, they prevented an explosion," Vladimir Vasilyev, on the crisis team last October, told the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets.

"But as you saw, what followed was a failure, especially in providing medical assistance to people. Who can argue with that?" Vasilyev said.


He said nothing more about who was to blame for the disorder at the end of the three-day siege, when freed hostages were trundled clumsily out of the theater and dumped into buses.

Russian President Vladimir Putin  after laying a bouquet of dark red roses at the monument to those who died during the terrorist attack on a Moscow's theater a year ago, Oct. 23, 2003.  [AP] 
Medical teams criticized the action, saying the failure to treat victims immediately for the effects of the noxious gas caused many deaths on the spot.

Survivors and the families of the dead have filed claims running into tens of millions of dollars -- unprecedented in Russia -- blaming authorities for mishandling the operation.

All have been rejected by courts as Russian law prohibits legal action against security forces in such circumstances.

At Thursday's ceremonies, relatives of the dead clutched burning candles and laid flowers by the memorial and a plaque on the wall with engraved names of those who perished. Putin, opening a new Russian air base earlier in Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia, said wounds left by the siege would take time to heal. He called for fresh efforts against extremists.

"You allow terrorists to raise their heads in one place and they immediately do so at another," Putin said, clearly referring to Russia's decade-long armed campaign to root out separatist rebels in its southern Chechnya province.

The attack prompted Putin to draft a peace plan for Chechnya which culminated in the election this month of a regional president. Kremlin favorite Akhmad Kadyrov easily won, but rights groups dismissed the poll as unfair and Western countries have expressed reservations.

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