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Putin Promises Tough Anti-Terror Measures

Russia won't succumb to blackmail, president says. Meanwhile, hostages' relatives vent anger over deaths, while others call raid a success.

October 29, 2002|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir V. Putin promised Monday to widen the military's powers to take tough measures against terrorists as Muscovites mourned the deaths of more than 100 hostages from a gas used by security forces during a controversial weekend rescue operation.

Putin said he would enable the Russian military to take its attack against terrorists anywhere they have bases, organizations, financial backers or ideological supporters.

Officials have still not released the name of the gas used in Saturday's effort to free about 750 people held by Chechen rebels at a Moscow theater, but they insist it was a general anesthetic such as those used in surgery. About 400 of the freed hostages remained hospitalized Monday.

U.S. Embassy officials said Monday that Western doctors had examined some of the released hostages and concluded that the gas used was probably an opiate rather than a nerve gas, as some had speculated.

There were some inconsistencies in the death toll. A Health Ministry press release Monday put the number of hostages killed during the operation at 117, one lower than the figure announced a day earlier by Moscow health officials.

An estimated 50 hostage-takers were killed during the operation.

U.S. officials believe that one of two American citizens who were among the hostages was killed. They have tentatively identified the slain man but were awaiting confirmation before releasing his name. Media have reported that an American named Sandy Alan Booker, 49, of Oklahoma had not yet been accounted for.

Although anger is growing among bereaved relatives about the extent of casualties and the use of the unidentified gas to knock out hostages and terrorists, many Russians called the raid a success.

On Monday, Putin said Russia would never succumb to blackmail by terrorists. He warned of a growing threat that international terrorists would attack using means similar to weapons of mass destruction.

"International terrorism is getting more and more arrogant and is behaving more and more cruelly," he said. "If someone even tries to use such means against our country, then Russia will retaliate with measures adequate to these threats."

Putin did not elaborate on his declaration that his security forces would go anywhere terrorists or their supporters are based, but it was widely assumed that he meant not only Russian territory but such neighboring nations as Georgia.

Putin declared Monday a day of mourning, and Russians thronged to the theater where the hostages were taken captive Wednesday night during a performance of the musical "Nord-Ost." On a black, wet evening, they piled flowers knee-deep and coaxed candles to light in the wind and rain.

Many of the mourners praised Putin's handling of the crisis, arguing that there was no other way to resolve the deadlock.

Oksana Yermokova, 29, manager at a cable television company, stood silently staring at the flowers and the theater.

"I feel very sorry for those who died. But I believe that given the number of hostages, the number of casualties is unfortunately acceptable," she said. "I think [the raid] was the one and only correct way out."

Like many, she said the use of gas was "a necessary measure," despite the fact that it is blamed for almost all of the deaths among hostages.

Gennady Milov, 67, a neurologist who came to mourn, said he felt sorry for the dead but "there was no other way."

"Only about 15% of the hostages died," he said. "That's normal, by international standards. Otherwise it could have been close to 1,000 dead. Everything was done in the right way."

Galina Dmitreyeva, 65, said the operation was "successful and timely. Putin handled himself very correctly and courageously."

But one bereaved father, interviewed by telephone, was furious. Sergei Karpov said he found out only Monday that his son Alexander, 31, had died. The father searched for three days with little help from the authorities.

Karpov said he would not take any of the $3,150 in compensation offered by the government to victims' families.

"I found my son in a morgue today. I am going to sue the state in court for killing my son. Now I am looking for a good lawyer," he said. "I am going to sue them through the nose, and it is not about money. It is about moral principles."

Controversy continued Monday over the continuing refusal of the authorities to give details on the gas used in the operation, despite requests from several foreign embassies.

The chief doctor of the Russian Emergency Medicine Center, Irina Nazarova, said in an interview on Echo of Moscow radio that none of the doctors knew what kind of gas they were dealing with when hundreds of unconscious patients were brought to hospitals Saturday morning after the rescue operation. Nor were they issued any special antidote by the government; they used what medications they had on hand.

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