Moscow hostage crisis ends tragically with 118 dead

  • 2002-10-31

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the military to draw up new anti-terror plans as Russia mourned the deaths of 118 captives who died in a seige at a Moscow theater, most from the paralyzing gas used to rescue them from a group of heavily-armed Chechen rebels who had held them hostage for nearly three days.

While Moscow maintained a wall of silence around the precise nature of the gas, a top medical official said "sarin or other poison gases" were not used but rather an "anestetising gas used in surgery."

Flags around the country flew at half-mast Oct. 28, named a national day of mourning, and entertainment shows were pulled from the schedules to honor the dead from the hostage-taking by Chechen rebels.

The guerrillas, including women armed with explosives, grenades and automatic weapons, burst into the theater in southeastern Moscow during an evening performance of the popular musical "Nord-Ost" and took more than 800 members of the audience, cast and crew hostage.

The rebels demanded Putin end the three-year old war in the breakaway republic of Chechnya and begin peace negotiations and threatened to start shooting hostages if he refused.

Of the 118 hostages who died, 115 succumbed to the effects of the gas pumped into the theater by special forces ahead of an assault during which 50 Chechen hostage-takers also died, 45 from gunshot wounds.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow identified the gas as an opiate that dulls the senses, but not a nerve gas.

A U.S. official in Washington speaking on condition of anonymity said the evidence indicated "the gas was probably opiate based and probably not a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention," the treaty that bars the use of poison gases.

Russian officials have refused to provide details of the gas that some experts believe may have been a chemical weapon of a non-lethal nature developed during the Cold War.

Many hostages died of gas poisoning, because medics who entered the theater after the assault had not been given proper equipment or instructions, one of the rescuers said.

Russian officials said 405 of the freed captives remained hospitalized on Oct. 29, 45 of them in grave condition. Some 239 had been released, Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matviyenko said.

Public reaction to the rescue operation has been largely positive despite the rising death toll, encouraged by insistent television coverage that has presented the outcome as a triumph for Russia's special forces.

Among politicians, only Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov broke ranks, criticizing the hostage deaths as "unjustifiable."

"More than 100 deaths, serious physical and mental trauma for a huge number of people, these are unjustifiable losses. The authorities were incapable of taking preventative measures to stop such actions," he told the Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily.

As questions lingered over the use of the gas, Putin sought to keep attention focused squarely on the Chechens' tactics and away from the hostage death toll which could continue to climb.

He ordered his generals to draw up new plans against what he termed "increasingly bold, more cruel" methods used by "terrorists."

"If anyone tries to use such methods against our country, Russia will retaliate with appropriate measures against terrorists and their ideological and financial backing wherever they may be," Putin said in televised remarks. "Russia will never make any deals with terrorists and will never give in to blackmail."

Moscow maintained its hardline position on the war in Chechnya, announcing that Putin had canceled a visit to Denmark to protest Copenhagen's decision to allow an international conference on Russia's breakaway southern republic to be held in the Danish capital.

"The conference is organized and financed by Chechen terrorists, accomplices and patrons from al-Qaeda who, as is now absolutely clear, were behind the awful terrorist act in Moscow. In the circumstances, the planned visit of the Russian president to Denmark cannot go ahead," the foreign ministry said.

About 75 of the hostages were foreigners, including Latvian residents Margarita Dubina, a 54-year-old teacher at a Riga high school, and her children Kira Zelcermane, 21, and Aleksandrs Zelcermanis, 28. All three survived the ordeal.

Citizens of the United States, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands and Austria were reported among the casualties.

Many relatives were angered after doctors complained that the lack of information about the gas that affected the patients was impeding them in their work.

Putin's top medical official, Viktor Fominykh, denied that any "sarin or other poisonous gas" was used.

The purpose of the raid "had not been to kill everyone, and so the use of sarin or any other poison gas can be ruled out," he said. "Consequently, it is not essential to know its composition exactly in order to provide treatment."

Aslanbek Aslakhanov, a pro-Russian deputy from Chechnya in Russia's lower house of parliament, said Chechens living in and around Moscow were suffering harassment and summary detention by Russian police in the wake of the hostage drama.

Aslakhanov's office has received more than 500 calls from Chechens complaining about police intimidation. Many had been visited by police who searched their homes, arrested them and took them to the police station to have their photographs and fingerprints taken.