MOSCOW -- Special forces troops stormed a Moscow theater before sunrise Saturday where hundreds of hostages were being held by Chechen rebels, killing their leader and freeing the captives after a three-day standoff.
At least 20 bodies were seen being taken from the theater by an AP photographer after a night of explosions and gunfire. Some of the bodies were hostages, Russian news agencies said.
Sergei Ignatchenko, a spokesman for the Federal Security Service, said most of the hostage-takers had been killed. He said the operation to free the hostages began when the Chechen rebels began executing the captives.
Earlier, officials said two hostages were killed and two injured and that the hostage-takers had begun to execute their captives. Two women escaped as soldiers armed with assault rifles were seen moving toward the theater, and two more ran from the building later while ambulances poured into the southeast Moscow neighborhood where the crisis began Wednesday evening.
The hostage-takers had earlier threatened to begin killing their captives before sunrise Saturday. After the two deaths, officials reached the captors by phone but then quickly said their negotiations had failed.
Movsar Barayev -- a young warlord who inherited a gang of rebels from his uncle, the infamous Arbi Barayev -- had led the group of as many as 50 heavily armed men and women into the theater in a bold raid less than three miles from the Kremlin.
Late Friday, a mediator who met with the gunmen said they promised to release the hostages if Russian President Vladimir Putin declared an end to the war in Chechnya and began withdrawing troops.
The new demands were brought out of the theater just before midnight Friday by Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist who is respected by Chechens for her reporting on the war and was called in by the rebels to mediate.
Politkovskaya said the gunmen had told her they were "going to wait only a little while" before they started killing hostages.
She listed rebel demands, and foremost among them were Putin's declaration of an end to the war and the start of a Russian withdrawal from one region anywhere in Chechnya to show good will. If verified, the rebels promised to free the hostages.
She said the captors agreed to her suggestion that verification be done by Lord Judd, a member of the Council of Europe who has made many trips to investigate the human rights situation in Chechnya.
The demand was the first time that the gunmen revealed specific conditions for freeing the hostages, estimated to number as many as 800 and include Americans, Britons, Dutch, Australians, Canadians, Austrians and Germans. Earlier, the captors demanded that Russia withdraw from Chechnya.
Putin said Friday that "the preservation of the lives of the people who remain in the theater building" was his overriding concern. Federal Security Service chief Nikolai Patrushev said after meeting with Putin that the hostage-takers' lives would be guaranteed if they freed their captives.
Daria Morgunova, a spokeswoman for the musical, told The Associated Press that an actor who was among the hostages called her to say that the captors had threatened to begin killing hostages at dawn. She said she received the call about two hours before Patrushev's statement.
The heavily armed hostage-takers had said they were ready to die and take their hostages with them if their demands weren't met, and witnesses said they had wired the building and themselves with explosives.
The gunmen released 19 hostages Friday, including eight children aged between 6 and 12. Dressed in winter coats -- and one clutching a teddy bear with aviator goggles -- the children appeared healthy as they left the building accompanied by Red Cross workers in the afternoon.
Seven adults were freed earlier in the day, and four citizens of Azerbaijan were released after dark, Russian officials said.
Politkovskaya was one of several influential figures who entered the theater late Friday in efforts to mediate with the captors. They also included former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Ruslan Aushev, the former president of Ingushetia, a region bordering Chechnya.
Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Vasilyev was quoted by news agencies as saying unsuccessful attempts had been made to contact Aslan Maskhadov, a rebel leader who was president of Chechnya between Russian troops' withdrawal in 1996 and resumption of the war three years later.
"The leader of the terrorist act is Maskhadov. It was organized with his participation," Vasilyev said in televised comments, while state-run Russian networks broadcast footage meant to prove the link.
From a tape apparently made sometime since June, the footage showed Maskhadov saying rebels have shifted from guerrilla warfare to an "offensive" strategy and adding: "I am certain that in the final stage we will carry out a still more unique action, like the jihad, and with this operation we will liberate our land from the Russian aggressors."
Hostages gave varying accounts of conditions in the theater Friday, with one saying the captives hadn't received food or water and been using the orchestra pit as a toilet.
A group of about 80 demonstrators outside the theater carried banners and chanted anti-war slogans. Several said they were responding to requests from relatives who were among the hostages.
Alexander Petrov, a demonstrator who said he had friends inside the theater, said previously he had not been opposed to the Chechen war, but now "what way out is there?"