Russia's Moscow-based national newspapers wrestled yesterday with questions raised by the government's decision to use gas to subdue the Chechen guerrillas Saturday in an effort to rescue more than 700 men, women and children who had been taken hostage last week.
While some newspapers praised President Vladimir V. Putin for finding a way to save some lives in an impossible situation, others raised troublesome questions. Why, for example, did the Chechens fail to detonate their bombs when the gas started seeping in, especially when hostages on cell phones had time to report on the gas before they succumbed to it?
Following are a few excerpts from yesterday's editions, compiled by Nadezhda Mayevskaya and Yelena Ilingina in The Sun's Moscow Bureau and Kathy Lally in Baltimore.
By Ernst Chyorny
It has been two days since the hostages were released, but the police, prosecutor's office and Federal Security Service (FSB) aren't always allowing relatives information about the former hostages and don't even reveal their location because of their "serious condition." ... All this is reminiscent of the situation with prisoners of war in the Soviet Union ... and generates even more serious doubts.
... One hostage was quoted as saying that when she and some others nearby became aware of the gas in the theater, they knew that rescue teams were finally coming. The hostages passed out a few seconds later.
The terrorists must have experienced something similar, and their reaction should have been quite simple - push the buttons of their explosive devices. ... Like the hostages, they must have understood what was coming - but did not detonate the devices. Fifty bombs, and not a single explosion!
By Vitaly Tretyakov
... As the Russian president, Putin could choose only [the use of armed force] because ... meeting the terrorists' demands would inevitably have led to the following consequences:
Terrorists, slave traders, figures with medieval morals and a medieval life style [would come to power in Chechnya].
They would kill hundreds and even thousands of Russians living in Chechnya along with any Chechens who had collaborated with the federal authorities.
A series of similar terrorist acts would ensue in Russian cities, where authorities would have to make concessions again and again. ...
Personally I think that if Putin had agreed to meet the terrorists' demands the way they were made, he would have been overthrown even before the New Year.
By Sergei Sokut and Mikhail Khodarenok
... In speaking of international terrorism, the president was primarily referring to Chechen guerrillas; and it is this challenge the armed forces are supposed to meet. It is clear that hostage-taking will no longer be used to put pressure on the Kremlin. Extremists will probably follow in the footsteps of Palestinian radicals, who use terrorism as a weapon of fear against the entire population.
Like their Israeli colleagues, Russian security structures will respond to terrorist acts with all-out military operations in Chechnya, without sparing much thought for who is involved in the terrorist act and who is not. ...
By Boris Kagarlitsky
... The authorities did in Moscow what they have been doing for more than three years in Chechnya: They blocked the flow of information, they lied and passed off defeat as victory.
But what the federal government gets away with in a distant Caucasus republic didn't work in Moscow with dozens of journalists and thousands of witnesses watching. The public was told that the raid was launched only after the gunmen began killing hostages. But even law enforcement officials admitted that the raid had been planned in advance, and that they had intentionally taunted the gunmen with "leaks" about the upcoming attack in an attempt to keep the gunmen off-balance (and thereby goad them into starting a fight). ...
The authorities took special pride in their plan to launch a gas attack in a closed building. They still have not let the public know what gas was used.
The authorities' reluctance to share any information with the doctors treating the former hostages isn't hard to understand, however. It was immediately suspected that they had used poisonous substances banned under international conventions - the very substances cited by the United States in justifying its plan to bomb Iraq.
... Was it really necessary to storm the building? Yes, it was necessary - politically necessary. The authorities needed the raid and all the casualties in order to make it possible for them to continue the war in Chechnya, to contain the growing anti-war mood in society, to demonstrate Vladimir Putin's decisiveness and strength of will.