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Russia: Wisdom Of Moscow Theater Raid Under Question

  • Gregory Feifer

Officials and state-controlled media have hailed as an unprecedented success the special-forces operation that ended Moscow's Chechen-rebel hostage standoff on 26 October. But the government remains tight-lipped about many details of the raid, including the type of gas used to incapacitate the hostage takers, which has prompted questions about whether the operation really was such a triumph.

Moscow, 28 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In the aftermath of the dramatic 26 October early morning raid, state-run media in Russia have touted as an unqualified success the actions of Russian special forces in liberating around 800 hostages held by Chechen militants in a Moscow theater.

President Vladimir Putin made a televised address to the nation in which he lavished praise on those who carried out the operation.

"We managed to do the near-impossible: Save the lives of hundreds, hundreds of people. We proved it is impossible to bring Russia to its knees," Putin said.

But as more details emerge about the raid, the story is increasingly focusing not on the hundreds of hostages who were saved but on the large number who died.

Russian doctors say up to 120 hostages died in the siege, almost all of them from an unidentified gas used to disable the Chechen hostage takers when security forces stormed the theater.

Hundreds remained in hospitals around the city on 28 October, most with gas poisoning. Some 45 were in serious condition.

While few Russians sympathize with the militants, relatives and friends of the hostages are questioning whether a 20 percent casualty rate can really be called a success, and why more was not done to alert hospitals about the type of gas used.

At first, officials said none of the deaths of the hostages -- at first estimated to be around 30 -- resulted from the gas used to knock out the rebels. Russian Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Vasilev said the hostages had died from cardiovascular disease, depression and emotional shock.

In addition to not telling doctors what gas had been used or providing an antidote, the government is also being criticized for other failures in the rescue operation, such as not establishing a center for the treatment of hostages. Instead, victims were driven to hospitals around the capital and have been kept there for days as desperate relatives try to contact their loved ones.

In an attempt to prevent the kind of criticism that dogged him after the "Kursk" submarine tragedy, Putin visited former hostages in a hospital on 26 October and apologized on behalf of the government during his address to the nation: "But now, most of all, I want to address the relatives of those who perished. We couldn't save everyone. Forgive us. The memory of those who died must unite us."

But some Western commentators have denounced the storming of the theater and the deaths of so many hostages as incompetent, and have questioned the motive for launching the raid in the first place -- that is, whether the militants had begun to execute the hostages. Russian forces have also been criticized for their heavy-handed tactics in the raid, including shooting the hostage takers in the head as they remained unconscious from the gas.

But it is the secrecy over the gas that has drawn the biggest condemnations. "The Times" of London calls it "a disgrace, a throwback to the worst of Soviet military secrecy and a callous disregard for human life." Russia's TVS television channel has also questioned how the raid was carried out.

But far from everyone in Moscow is critical. Igor Bunin, director of Moscow's Center for Political Technologies, says any success whatsoever was improbable, that the theater -- extensively wired with explosives -- did not collapse, and that the Russian population on the whole feels the same.

"From Russians' point of view, [Putin] is an undoubted victor. He's a person who magically saved the hostages and saved Russia from humiliation, and his ratings will grow steeply," Bunin says.

Yurii Korgunyuk, director of Moscow's Indem political research group, agrees, comparing the raid to the handling of other hostage crises in Russia, including one in 1995 in which around 150 hostages out of about 1,500 were killed in an unsuccessful rescue attempt.

Korgunyuk reserves his criticism for Russian law enforcement. He questions how a group of 50 heavily armed rebels could lay siege to a Moscow theater.

"The fact that the act itself was possible -- a terrorist act in the center of Moscow -- speaks to the fact that, in this case, [law enforcers] have undertaken nothing, done nothing."

Korgunyuk says Putin now has to focus on preventing similar acts instead of continuing to issue praise over the storming of the theater.

"The failure of the Russian forces on the territory of Chechnya creates the very conditions in which new terrorists and rebels emerge regularly," Korgunyuk says.

For now, though, a clear line seems to have been drawn between how the handling of the crisis is being seen in Russian and abroad.

Glen Howard is executive director of the Washington-based American Committee for Peace in Chechnya. Howard tells RFE/RL that the failure to try to resolve the crisis peacefully is a "terrible tragedy."

"It's going to prolong the war in Chechnya. It's going to prolong the suffering of the Chechen people, and it's probably not going to be the last kamikaze raid," Howard says.

Critics say that in order to really be effective, Putin has to tackle the root of the problem: the ongoing war in Chechnya. So far, however, it seems the hostage crisis has only strengthened calls for further tough measures in Chechnya to fight what Putin calls "international terrorism."

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