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Russia: More Details, More Questions On Moscow Raid

Prague, 29 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- More details are emerging about the Moscow hostage drama and the raid by special forces that ended it. But many mysteries remain, especially concerning the gas Russian special forces used to subdue Chechen militants holding more than 700 people hostage.

Doctors said over the weekend that most of the nearly 120 hostages who died in the raid succumbed to the gas. Russian authorities have not identified the substance other than to say it was an anesthetic used in surgery.

The heavy death toll, together with the official caginess and the symptoms suffered by many of the hostages -- such as sickness and increased heart rate -- have all fed speculation that the special forces used a nerve agent or a derivative thereof. Such an agent could put Russia at odds with international agreements on banning chemical-warfare substances.

U.S. officials now say they believe the gas was opiate-based, similar to, but stronger than, morphine, and not a nerve agent.

An anonymous spokeswoman with the U.S. Embassy in Moscow said this today: "Like other Western embassies, we have asked Russian authorities for information on the gas used. We have received some preliminary information on the effects of the agent used, but they have not confirmed the name of the agent. A Western embassy in Moscow has had its physicians examine surviving hostages and concluded that the agent they were exposed to appears to be consistent with an opiate rather than a nerve agent."

However, a German doctor who treated two of the former hostages described this theory as "rubbish." Thomas Zilker, a professor at Munich Technical University's clinic, wouldn't tell RFE/RL what the gas was other than to say it was an ordinary anesthetic gas. "It's probably, with some likelihood, it's a gas which was used for many, many years in Western Europe and America to produce general anesthesia, and as we have now better gases in the meantime, it's not used any more in our part of the world," Zilker said.

Asked how it could have killed so many of the hostages, Zilker said that was no mystery either. "If I give you a gas that makes you unconscious and then the anesthetist is not beside you a lot of people will die. That's quite normal. Because it puts the respiration down, you start vomiting, and the content of your stomach comes up and goes into your lungs. You have a lack of oxygen; your tongue will fall back and block your airway," Zilker said.

Moscow chief prosecutor Mikhail Avdyukov said today that 45 people died of gunshot wounds, 41 of them hostage takers.

He said the other four included two hostages and a woman who was shot as she entered the theater shortly after the militants seized the building. He said officials were still checking the identity of another man shot during the raid.

But earlier, doctors had said all but two of the hostage deaths were from gas. There's as yet no explanation on the discrepancy in the figures.

An unnamed member of the elite Alfa unit that stormed the theater told the "Izvestiya" daily today that they did not shoot a single hostage.

In another development, Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov today announced further detentions in connection with the hostage taking. "Today, the Interior Ministry has been taking unprecedented actions to uncover a terrorist network operating in Moscow and the surrounding region. We've already detained several dozen people suspected of involvement in the hostage taking," Gryzlov said.

Meanwhile, more former hostages were released from hospitals today, leaving 317 still under medical care.

As they tell their stories to the media, their accounts also throw doubt on whether the event that triggered the raid actually happened, i.e., whether the militants carried out their threat to begin executing their captives.

Officials said initially that the Chechen captors had begun shooting hostages, but hostage accounts paint a different picture.

Mark Podlesnyi, one of the actors held captive, told media that a hostage had suddenly risen out of his seat and rushed at one of the hostage takers with a bottle. The militants shot at him but missed, hitting instead a man and a woman who were then reportedly taken outside for treatment.