Chechen 'Black Widows' Bring New Fears

Covered from head to toe in all-black Islamic robes with only their determined, kohl-lined eyes showing, they quickly came to be called the "black widows" as a horrified world watched a new Chechen female suicide squad in action last week.

They were widows of Chechen rebels killed in the separatist war with Russia, they told the 700-odd terrified hostages at Moscow's Palace of Culture Theater. And they warned the captured theater patrons that their zest for death was stronger than their captives' collective will to live.

Death ultimately did strike the 18 black widows and some 30-odd other rebels before sunrise on Saturday, when Russian special forces pumped a mysterious knockout gas into the theater during a controversial raid to end the 2 ½-day standoff.

Hours after the operation ended, news cameras inside the theater captured a surreal scene of the bodies of the once-dreaded women warriors slumped and lifeless on the plush red seats of the auditorium. Explosives were strapped around many of the bodies.

Commonly called "hell on Earth," Chechnya has been the site of one of the murkiest insurgencies in modern history since Russian troops first entered the Muslim-dominated southern Russian state in 1994 to quash a separatist movement.

In the past few years, the international community has come to expect the worst from the Chechen conflict, including kidnappings, disappearances, tortures and raids in an all-pervasive climate of lawlessness and terror.

But even the most seasoned Russian experts were horrified by the sight of the "widows of the war" calmly announcing their intention to blow up the famous Moscow theater in a videotaped message, which was aired the Arabic satellite TV network al Jazeera just hours after the rebels seized the theater.

"I was shocked, very much so," said Sebastian Gorka, a fellow at the Virginia-based Terrorism Research Center. "For those familiar with mainstream Chechen society — which to put it bluntly, is a conservative society — the concept of front-line Chechen female combatants is unusual, it's a novelty."

A Frightening New Face of Terror

But for many of the hostages, the black widows were a particularly frightening terror innovation.

Russian newspapers reported chilling witness accounts of the determination and discipline of the female rebels, with several freed hostages complaining that the women guerrillas were particularly aggressive.

In an interview with the Komsomolskaya Pravda, for instance, Ludmila Fedyantseva, a schoolteacher who was trapped in the theater with her 73-year-old mother, recounted how she constantly sought medicine for the ailing woman.

On one such mission, Fedyantseva said she was accosted by a female Chechen rebel called Svyeta, who demanded to know why the teacher had left her seat.

"My mother is dying," Fedyantseva said she told her captor.

She said Svyeta replied stonily: "It doesn't bother my conscience. If I see [you] again, I'll shoot."

For the terror-stricken hostages who had come to the theater to see a performance of a popular musical, mercy was apparently in short supply.

"You're having a bad day," one of the Chechen rebels reportedly told Fedyantseva. "But we've had a bad 10 years."

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