Russia vows its own war on terror

Echoing Bush, Putin poised to strike against threats in foreign lands

Dispute on raid is growing

October 29, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - President Vladimir V. Putin said yesterday that he is granting the Russian military expanded powers to fight terrorism and is prepared to follow in the footsteps of the United States by striking at threats beyond its borders.

Putin's remarks to his Cabinet came as Russians soberly reassessed the raid led by counterterrorism troops Saturday to free hundreds of hostages held by Chechen guerrillas in a Moscow theater. Officials acknowledged that all but one of the 117 hostages killed in the raid died from the effects of a debilitating gas pumped into the theater.

Authorities have declined to identify the gas, withholding the information even from doctors treating freed hostages.

Putin ignored the controversy over the gas, instead warning of what he described as the escalating threat of global terrorism.

"International terrorism is becoming more impudent, acting more cruelly," Putin said at a televised Cabinet meeting. "Here and there around the world, threats from terrorists of the use of means comparable to weapons of mass destruction are heard.

"If anyone even tries to use such means in relation to our country, Russia will answer with measures adequate to the threat to the Russian Federation - in all places where the terrorists, the organizers of these crimes, or their ideological or financial sponsors are located. I emphasize: wherever they may be."

The Kremlin has already threatened to expand the war against rebels in Chechnya, which is part of Russia, into the independent nation of Georgia. Georgia's Pankisi Valley has in the past been used by several hundred Chechen fighters as a base. American officials say fighters linked to al-Qaida have also operated in the valley.

The Kremlin's militant mood yesterday ended any hopes that the hostage crisis might lead officials to reconsider their policy of seeking to wipe out Chechen rebels. In the second conflict in Chechnya in a decade, Russia's 3-year-old war in Chechnya has claimed about 80,000 lives, including those of 4,500 Russians.

Many Russians seemed yesterday to accept the Kremlin's decision to use a gas to incapacitate the guerrillas in the theater, where more than 750 hostages were held for three days. But criticism of the government's failure to provide critical medical treatment to the hostages was growing. And there was anger that authorities declined to identity the gas, making it hard for doctors to treat the victims.

"I am afraid that military toxicologists will have the deaths of hostages on their consciences," Lev Fyodorov, an expert on chemical warfare, told the newspaper Moscow Komsomolets. "Before hostages were evacuated from the center, rescuers should have injected everyone with an antidote."

The newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda reported that the decision to use a chemical agent to knock out the terrorists was made Thursday, when the Federal Security Service decided the captors would never surrender. The FSB decided to use a gas nicknamed Kolokol-1, or Bell One.

"This heavy gas spreads quickly," the paper reported. "It influences people within one to three seconds, cutting off their consciousness for the period from two up to six hours, depending on people's state of health. For people with bad cardiovascular systems and for those with high vomiting reflexes, a lethal outcome is possible."

Dr. Viktor Fominykh, chief physician at the presidential medical center in Moscow, denied that "war gases" were used to end the crisis. "The gas that the crack unit used in that special operation has a general narcotic effect and is used during major surgeries," he told ITAR-TASS. But he did not identify it further.

"Judging by its effect, it could not have been any of the gases used in medical practice," Dr. Alexander Krylov, an anesthesiologist told Russian reporters. "Neither nitrous oxide nor chloroform can produce quick effects when dispersed in big premises."

Dr. Roger A. Johns, chairman of anesthesiology and critical care medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital, said he had never heard of the agent named by the newspaper. But he said the gas' rapid effect on the hostages could be consistent with the use of a regular general anesthetic in high enough concentrations.

Without skilled medical personnel at the scene to provide the kind of life support routinely present in operating rooms, it "could have devastating effects," Johns said.

"In the absence of someone there providing support, providing ventilation, these agents, if breathed in ... can depress the cardiovascular system. They can cause the airway to obstruct, making it difficult to provide oxygen to the brain and other organs," he said.

Dehydration from a lack of food and water would have made the hostages more vulnerable, he said. An anesthetic "would dilate the blood vessels and decrease the force of the contraction of the heart, and in the absence of the usual volume [of blood because of dehydration], it may lead to cardiovascular collapse."

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