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Russia: More Than Two Days Later, Gas Still A Mystery

Hundreds of people are still in hospital after Russian special forces on 26 October gassed and stormed a Moscow theater where captives were being held by Chechen militants. Moscow's chief doctor says the gas used in the raid was responsible for the vast majority of the nearly 120 hostage deaths. Authorities say the gas was an anesthetic of the kind used in surgery, but they have so far refused to identify it -- despite being quizzed by the Germans and the United States. It has inevitably led to questions and speculation.

Prague, 28 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Just what kind of gas did the Russian special forces pump into the Moscow theater to subdue the Chechen hostage takers?

Viktor Fominykh, the head of the Russian presidential health service, said today it was an anesthetizing gas similar to that used by doctors in surgery. He said it was not a military gas. Others describe it as a 'nonlethal' substance.

Whatever it was, the effects were all too lethal. Of the almost 120 hostages to die in the siege, all but a few died of gas poisoning.

Official reluctance to identify the substance means people are in the dark now as much as they were on 28 October during the raid. Anya, a hostage, spoke to Ekho Moskvy radio as the gas was being released:

Correspondent: "Can you tell us what type of gas this is? Is it tear gas? What is happening with the people? Can you see it? Can you feel it?"

Anya: "I beg you, I don't know. We see it. We feel it. We are breathing through clothes." [Gunshots]

Those gunshots were the first sign that special forces were storming the theater in an attempt to rescue the hundreds of hostages.

But feelings of relief that the siege was at an end soon became tinged with anger and frustration as it became clear how sick the gas made many of the hostages.

Doctors complained they could not do their job properly as they did not know what was poisoning their patients. One woman quoted her daughter as saying "they poisoned us like cockroaches."

Lev Fedorov, president of Russian's Union for Chemical Safety, said it was a big mistake: "The hospitals were not prepared for them. They were put in general wards, and, as far as I understand, the anesthesiologists have not been warned about this particular toxic agent and were not provided with antidotes."

So what was the gas?

Russian officials say it was an "anesthetic," and explain the high death toll by citing the physical and psychological ordeal the hostages had gone through during their three days in captivity.

One problem with the anesthetic theory is the sheer physical difficulty of pumping in enough gas to ensure a high-enough concentration to knock out a lot of people.

David Whitaker of the Association of Anesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland also says anesthetic agents probably would not have led to so many deaths: "If you give people a large dose of anesthetic, it can lower their blood pressure and in very high concentrations -- not the sort we'd use in anesthesiology -- it might stop the heart. But if they were given adequate massage or put under bypass, they would generally recover. So they're generally reversible things, so I think it would be unlikely it would be anesthetic agent."

Alistair Hay is a toxicologist at Leeds University in the U.K. and an expert on chemical warfare. He says one "distinct possibility" is "BZ," an odorless nerve agent.

"BZ was an agent that was developed in the 1960s for use in the battlefield. It was meant to disorient soldiers so they would be quite incapable of fighting," Hay says. "It does work at a fairly low concentration, but it is known that [with] concentrations above [that], there are significant risks and it can be lethal as well. And you'd probably expect to find soldiers die on the battlefield through its use."

He says the long-term effects have not been studied and it is not known to have been used in the field, though there were suspicions of BZ use in Mozambique and in Srebrenica.

The mystery also raises questions about whether Russia has violated international treaties, notably the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention it signed in the late 1990s. That bans a number of chemicals and the weapons for dispersing them.

But as John Hart notes, there is also a window that allows certain chemicals to be used in certain situations. Hart is a researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and an expert on Russia's chemical-weapons destruction.

"Chemicals can [legally] be used for riot-control purposes and law-enforcement purposes, so I think it's arguable if this was a riot control situation," Hart says. "But the case can be made, in principle, that this was a law-enforcement action.

He says the Russian authorities' reluctance to identify the gas suggests they will use it again if need be.