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At Least 90 Captives Die in Moscow Raid

A gas used by authorities may have caused higher rate of fatalities, some fear. Russian officials praise theater operation, which freed hundreds.

October 27, 2002|John Daniszewski and David Holley | Times Staff Writers

MOSCOW — At least 90 people held captive by Chechen militants perished in a police rescue operation Saturday, officials said, amid disquieting indications that a special gas used by the assault forces might have been the main cause of a death rate of more than one out of 10 hostages.

The Interior Ministry said the assault shortly after dawn by elite police units and officers of the state security service killed 50 Chechen militants who had taken the audience at a theater prisoner, vowing to blow up themselves and the 750 captives if Russian troops did not leave their homeland.

Authorities called the raid a success. But the death toll among the hostages, which became public knowledge only hours later, cast a pall on any mood of official or private celebration.

Claims of success were "clearly an exaggeration," said Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist for the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta who had tried to mediate with the hostage-takers. "Even if only about 100 people died, as the authorities are saying, that number is tremendous."

"They say it is a big victory. For whom? Definitely not for me," said 52-year-old Yelena Molotova, distraught because she could not find her daughter, 33, on the lists of survivors posted at various hospitals. "I guess my daughter's life does not count for much to those who'd call this a victory."

President Vladimir V. Putin made a nationally televised address that was part apology and part praise for his forces. He said the outcome of the hostage crisis would have been far worse if police had not acted against such a "dangerous, inhuman and cruel" enemy.

"The lives of hundreds and hundreds of people have been saved," he said. "We have proven that it is impossible to bring Russia to its knees."

"But now, I address especially the relatives of those who died, we were not able to save everybody. Please, forgive us."

Foreigners' Fate Unclear

The fate of the estimated 75 foreign hostages captured alongside the rest of the audience and cast of "Nord-Ost" was not clear, although Russian authorities said initially that none was harmed. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow said it had not succeeded in verifying the condition of three American citizens and one permanent resident believed to be among the hostages.

In a possible indication of its sensitivity on the topic, the government declined to identify the type of gas used in the theater and even asserted that most of the victims died of extraneous factors such as heart attacks.

"You ask me if we used gas or not. Well, I am authorized to say that special means were used," Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Vasilyev said. "That allowed us to neutralize the kamikaze women who were strapped with explosives and held their fingers on the detonators."

Vasilyev blamed heart conditions, stress, depression, hunger and other independent factors for the deaths. But doctors at several hospitals, before police restricted access to their facilities, said that almost none of the captives had wounds of any sort and that many were being treated for gas poisoning.

A Funny Taste

Survivors of the raid among the hostages said the last thing they remembered was feeling weak with a funny taste in their mouths, apparently caused by the knockout fumes that were pumped by police into the theater's auditorium just before the armed forces shot their way into the building.

"They couldn't feel it, because such gas has no smell," Lev Fyodorov, a scientist who once worked on Soviet chemical weapons, said on Russian television.

An emergency worker quoted by Associated Press said that when he entered the hall behind the commandos, he saw everyone slumped in the seats, unconscious.

"First we thought that they were dead. Then we checked them and found that most were alive," Vadim Mikhailov said. "Inside there was a sweltering heat and the odor of human excrement. People were in shock, starved and incapacitated."

One hostage who was conscious, Marat Abdrakhimov, described the scene: "Soldiers around me were carrying out dozens of human bodies and putting them on the steps of the theater. Bodies lay there in piles and looked pretty lifeless. Then I noticed that someone was stirring his limbs, someone was raising a head. It was as if people were slowly coming back to their senses in the fresh, cold air."

Politkovskaya, however, said she feared that the death toll from gas poisoning could still rise.

"Some hospitals have even prohibited relatives from contacting the hostages for the next three days," she said. "This means that no one is sure what the consequences of the use of the nerve gas will be and how many more people will die."

She also accused the government of using its control of the main TV networks to hide information about the gas' effects.

"It is clear that the authorities are carefully dosing out the information that the mass media is allowed to release," she said. "They want to wait and see how it all turns out and how many people will finally die."

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