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Russia: Country Holds Official Day Of Mourning

Moscow, 28 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russia is holding an official day of mourning today for the victims of the Chechen hostage crisis at a Moscow theater. Russian doctors say at least 116 hostages are known to have died from a still-unidentified gas that Russian special forces released into the theater early on 26 October to disable the Chechen hostage takers.

Hundreds of former hostages remain in hospitals recovering from the effects of the gas, including up to 45 who are in critical condition. Just two hostages are said to have been killed from gunshots during the crisis.

Russian authorities have defended the use of the gas, saying it allowed the rescue of more than 750 people who might otherwise have been massacred by the Chechen gunmen. However, authorities continue to refuse to divulge the composition or the name of the gas.

U.S. President George W. Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, declined to say whether Bush believes Russia's use of the gas was appropriate. Fleischer said all the facts are not yet known.

However, the White House spokesman directly blamed the tragedy on what he called "terrorists" who took hostages, laid explosives in the theater, and created "dire circumstances" that Russian authorities were forced to deal with.