AP-Fotolur photo: A candle burns inside a plastic bottle next to flowers and toys placed around the blood-stained Moscow theater, as a line of trucks with troops surround it Sunday morning.
By Artur Terian in Moscow
A citizen of Armenia was among at least 118 captives killed in the unprecedented hostage crisis at a Moscow theater seized by Chechen gunmen last week, officials announced on Monday.
Like almost all other victims, the 43-year-old Miasnik Zakarian succumbed to the deadly effects of an unknown sedative gas which Russian special forces pumped into the theater auditorium to knock out the militants and free more than 700 hostages.
Russian authorities said initially that none of the approximately 75 foreigners was killed after their Alfa elite troops stormed the theater before dawn on Saturday. But as the death from the operation continued to rise over the weekend, it emerged that at least four Armenian, Austrian, Dutch and Kazakh citizens were among the dead.
Zakarian was a former resident of the southeastern Armenian town of Kapan working in the Russian capital. His cousin, Armen Arakelian, who also went to theater to watch the popular Russian musical “Nord-Ost” last Wednesday, stayed alive after lying unconscious for two hours.
Arakelian appeared to be in good health when interviewed by RFE/RL at home on Monday. “I nearly lost hope about coming out of the building alive,” he said. “But the most difficult thing was to see so many terrified women and children around.”
Arakelian confirmed reports that the Chechens allowed Georgian and Azerbaijani hostages to leave the theater shortly after bursting into it mid-way through the performance. “Somebody asked, ‘What about Armenians?’ But they refused, saying that they do not consider Armenians, as well as Belarusians, foreigners,” he said.
Armenia and especially Belarus have close political and military ties with Russia, with which the Chechen rebels have been locked in a long and devastating secessionist conflict.
The Armenian embassy in Moscow identified two other Armenian nationals who also survived the hostage-taking. Embassy officials said Tamar Gevorgian, 25, returned home on Sunday, while Karen Hayrapetian, 20, will be discharged from hospital soon. They also revealed that there were four other ethnic Armenians among the surviving hostages. Their citizenship was not clear though.
President Putin declared Monday an official day of mourning, with white-blue-red Russian national flags flying at half-mast on government buildings and television and radio stations suspending entertainment programs. Putin pledged tougher action against terrorist threats wherever they originate.
Moscow doctors said on Sunday 116 hostages were killed by the gas, raising questions about the wisdom of the anti-terrorist operation. More than 400 of the freed captives reportedly remained hospitalized on Monday, while 239 others have been released.
Armenian Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, meanwhile, offered his condolences to the families of the victims in a message to his Russian counterpart, Mikhail Kasyanov. Markarian said he is “deeply shocked” by the loss of life.