MOSCOW (Reuters) - Sixty-seven hostages were killed when Russian special forces stormed a Moscow theater at dawn on Saturday to end a three-day siege by Chechen rebels.
Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Vasilyev said 750 hostages held since Wednesday night by the heavily armed guerrillas in the capital had been saved in the operation.
Nearly all the rebels, 34, were killed.
Many of the survivors were suffering from gas poisoning, supporting reports security forces had pumped knock-out fumes into the theater before staging their morning attack.
Officials say that troops forced their way into the theater after rebels, some with explosives wrapped around them, executed two male hostages to press their demand that Russia pull its troops out of their separatist southern homeland.
A woman hostage had also been shot dead earlier in the siege while trying to escape.
The end of the drama, which brought the distant Chechen war to the heart of Moscow, will be a relief to President Vladimir Putin whose own position was being tested by the crisis.
He called at one of Moscow's top hospitals to visit survivors for about 10 minutes before being whisked away in his motorcade.
Officials gave no more details of the dead hostages but Australian and British diplomats said they had been told none of the estimated 75 foreign captives were among them.
A doctor from Moscow's main emergency hospital, Sklifosovsky, said he was treating 42 patients for gas poisoning.
The guerrilla commander, Movsar Barayev, was among those killed in an assault that Russia's deputy interior minister said had prevented a massacre of those seized while watching a popular Russian musical on Wednesday evening.
The theater-goers, enjoying a new Moscow craze for musicals and guzzling caviar and Russian champagne, had been watching "Nord-Ost" (North-East) -- about a Russian Arctic explorer.
By Saturday morning, the plush theater seats were empty except for a few black-clad bodies of dead Chechen guerrillas.
"We succeeded in preventing mass deaths and the collapse of the building which we had been threatened with," Vasilyev told reporters as ambulances took away survivors of the ordeal.
In freezing rain, the hostages were ferried quickly out of the theater, many to hospital and away from waiting journalists.
The Muslim rebels, who had rigged up explosives throughout the building, had threatened to start killing their hostages early on Saturday if they did not see evidence their demands that Moscow's troops pull out of Chechnya were being met.
Some relatives of hostages said they had been terrified when they knew troops would storm the theater to end the siege.
"All the parents were of the same opinion that the storming would be absolutely unacceptable. It's like a mystery, like a miracle for us. We were amazed that this could happen like this, without (many) casualties," said the father of one girl who had been among the hostages, and who survived.
TEST FOR PUTIN
The guerrillas' daring raid had set Putin the toughest test of his two and a half years in the Kremlin.
His startling rise to the presidency was largely based on his sending troops back into Chechnya in 1999 after a three-year absence, a popular move which earned him a reputation as a tough and effective leader.
Humiliated by the audacious rebel attack, Putin went on national television on Friday evening to say he was open to talks with Chechen guerrillas, but under his terms.
"We are open to any kind of contacts," a somber Putin said in his second set of televised comments since the attack.
He insisted that past conditions stood, notably that separatists lay down their weapons. Moscow also rejects any idea of independence for Chechnya, which Russian troops first invaded to crush a separatist movement in December 1994.
Some analysts have said that the siege would almost certainly tarnish his position, if only for showing that the law-and-order regime he promised was not very effective if a band of heavily armed guerrillas could so easily take over a crowded building in the capital.
But one bystander, Igor Konstantinov, in his 60s, was in no doubt about what he thought.
"Putin has only one choice. (U.S. President George W.) Bush showed the world what to do with these bastards after September 11. It's Putin's turn to liquidate them in Russia."
Putin links Russia's conflict in Chechnya to the U.S.-led global war on terrorism, which he enthusiastically backed after last year's September 11 attacks on the United States.
QUESTIONS OVER CHECHNYA
The siege and its closeness to the heart of Russia is certain to raise new questions over how the Kremlin should deal with the protracted secessionist war in the tiny North Caucasus region.
Though Putin won over voters with his hardline approach, many question whether it is succeeding and point to a series of humiliations of the military by Chechen rebels in recent months.
But one analyst, speaking before the siege was over, feared that what he had seen as glimmers of hope for a change in Kremlin policy to seek a political, rather than military solution, could have now been snuffed out for theater attack.
Russian Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov was quoted by local news agencies as saying over 30 people "who tried to help the terrorists" had been detained in locations across Moscow.
But he was also quoted as saying he had ordered his ministry to take measures to prevent any upsurge of anti-Chechen feelings in all parts of Russia. (Additional reporting by Larisa Sayenko)