Anesthetic gas used in rescue killed hostages

At least 116 succumbed to drug used to knock out Chechen captors in Russia

Rebels died, many by single shots

Families of the captives criticize Kremlin failure to provide information

October 28, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - All but one of the 117 hostages who died amid an attempt to rescue them from a Moscow music hall were killed by the effects of an anesthetic gas used to knock out their captors, Russian health authorities said yesterday.

Dr. Andrei P. Seltsovski, head of the Moscow Department of Public Health, said only one of the hostages died of a gunshot wound. And only two of the 646 people who remain hospitalized were injured by gunfire. Forty-five were in critical condition.

The disclosure that the gas triggered the overwhelming majority of casualties followed public frustration over the failure of the Kremlin to explain what had happened during Saturday's pre-dawn raid.

And it came after bitter criticism by the hostages' families, scores of whom still did not know whether their loved ones were alive or dead almost 36 hours after the siege.

Moscow's top health officials, speaking at a news conference, pointed out that general anesthetics are safe when used in controlled conditions and with the proper dose, as in an operating room.

But the rescue force probably used a high concentration of anesthetic, health officials said, to make sure it knocked out the heavily armed Chechen guerrillas who had seized the 1,163-seat theater in an old community center, or Palace of Culture, in southeast Moscow on Wednesday night.

The guerrillas, who included 18 women, vowed to kill more than 750 hostages if the Kremlin refused to halt the war in Chechnya. They planted explosives throughout the building. The women strapped plastic explosives to their waists, wired to hand-held detonators.

Special anti-terrorist forces pumped the gas through the ventilating system minutes before troops shot their way into the theater about 5:30 a.m. Although none of the soldiers was seen wearing a gas mask, they began smashing windows as soon as they entered - apparently to disperse the gas.

All of the hostages who died, the physicians said, were weakened by almost 2 1/2 days of being forced to sit in theater seats and by the stress of their captivity.

"They didn't have food, they didn't have water," Seltsovski said. "Some of them had chronic diseases."

The youngest to die was a 14-year-old girl, who developed what doctors described as circulatory problems after inhaling the gas.

Of the 50 guerrillas inside the theater when the troops stormed in, all were killed. Many died, witnesses said, of a single gunshot to the head. Russian counterterrorism troops have been quoted as saying that they shot the groggy guerrillas to be certain that they did not trigger explosives.

The health department was not told about the use of the anesthetic gas until about the time of the raid, Seltsovski said.

Although he said he did not know exactly what drug was used, he said city hospitals had the necessary drugs and equipment to treat all of the more than 750 people who were in the theater.

The former chief of the anti-terrorism department of Russia's Federal Security Service, or FSB, called the use of the gas a "very radical sort of solution" to the standoff.

But Vladimir Lutsenko said yesterday that Russian and U.S. counterterrorism officials have talked in the past about using gas. And he said its use this time may have prevented the Chechen guerrillas from blowing up the theater and killing everyone inside.

"You saw that those terrorists had explosive devices on them," Lutsenko said in an interview. "And even the smallest error could have resulted in explosions."

If the Kremlin had negotiated with the Chechens, he said, it would have encouraged more hostage-taking. If the raid had ended with the Chechens killing most of the hostages, that would still have been seen as a coup for the terrorists.

So a rescue had to be carried out, even at the cost of some lives, Lutsenko said, or thousands more innocent people would have lost their lives in the future.

"I think that it was a full victory, a complete victory," he said, "not only for our country, but a victory for the whole community of those countries and people who fight terrorism."

Even some members of hostages' families hesitated yesterday to question the use of gas.

"I don't know of any other solution," said Tamara Mareva, 64, who was still looking for her son Igor, a 40-year-old violinist working in the theater. She and her family had spent almost 36 hours scouring Moscow's hospitals, without success.

"Of course, if everyone was alive, it is one thing," she said, hesitating. "But if it is your own son, nothing seems acceptable."

A few hours later, she was told that Igor was among those who had died. Authorities did not tell her the cause.

Seltsovski told reporters that autopsies will be conducted.

The Kremlin appears to be trying to keep tight control on information about the raid.

Last night's news conference marked the first time that officials had acknowledged that a gas was used. On Saturday, Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Vasilyev would say only that "special means" were employed to subdue the guerrillas.

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