Gas clouds Moscow rescue

Since the siege's end, the hostage death toll has been rising steadily from 67 to 90 to 117.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Yelena and Sergei Bochkov are frantic. Their 25-year-old son Sergei was among the hostages held by Chechen terrorists for three days in a Moscow theater, and then freed in a dramatic rescue by Russian special forces Saturday morning.

But almost two days later, they can't find him.

"We have eight of Sergei's friends mobilized, going around to every hospital where the hostages are being treated, begging police to go inside and ask about him," says Ms. Bochkova. "No one has any information."

Recommended: Chechnya: How a remote Russian republic became linked with terrorism

The Bochkovs were among the forlorn knots of relatives waiting in the freezing rain Sunday outside every Moscow hospital where nearly 650 freed hostages were being held "under observation" by Russian special forces.

The initial wave of relief – and praise for President Vladimir Putin – that swept over Moscow is now turning to suspicion and anger as the death toll of the hostages continues to rise. Breaking a news blackout Sunday evening, a Moscow health official admitted that the gas used by Russian forces killed 115 of the 117 hostages that had died. The official said that 150 people were still in intensive care.

"The number of dead given by authorities has suddenly doubled, and people are at a complete loss to understand why. Why do the authorities never seem to give us reliable information?" asks Alexander Vainshtein, a leading Moscow theater producer who has many friends among the hostages.

This latest report confirms suspicions that the world may not have been told the whole truth about the daring Russian spetznaz rescue, especially about the use of a secret "sleeping gas" that was deployed to immobilize Chechen hostage-takers.

Russian authorities announced Saturday that they had killed most of the 50 heavily armed and explosive-laden Chechen terrorists and freed about 750 of the theater goers seized Wednesday night. On Saturday afternoon, Interior Ministry spokesman Vladimir Vasilyev announced a "definitive" death toll of 67 hostages, who he said were killed by Chechens during the 40-minute melee as special forces stormed the building. The terrorists had threatened to start killing hostages Saturday morning if their demands weren't met. "We had no choice. The decision to storm the building was correct," he said.

Death toll mounts

But by Sunday evening, Andrei Seltsovsky, chairman of the health committee of the city of Moscow, admitted 117 had died from the gas. The released hostages were still being held incommunicado in Moscow hospitals, and desperate relatives were not permitted to see them. Dr. Seltsovsky said that 646 of the freed hostages were still in the hospital, 150 were in intensive care, and 45 "in a grave condition."

President Putin met with released hostages in Moscow's Sklifisovskovo Hospital on Saturday, and later declared Monday as a national day of mourning for victims of the tragedy.

"I would like to address primarily the relatives and friends of those killed: We could not save everyone," Mr. Putin said in televised remarks later. "Please forgive us."

Olga Zhabatinskaya, waiting outside the gates of Sklifisovskovo Hospital Sunday afternoon, said she just wanted some news of her mother, Tatiana, who was among the hostages. Many of the freed hostages are confined inside a wing of the hospital, guarded by special forces who have orders not to let anyone in. "We've checked everywhere, even in the morgue," says Ms. Zhabatinskaya. "We can't find out anything."

Russian medical authorities at first suggested that some hostages may have expired after their release from heart trouble, stress, depression, and hunger, but offered no further details. A reporter for the online newspaper Gazeta.ru claimed to have seen scores of bodies in two Moscow hospitals, only four of which had bullet wounds. And the liberal daily Kommersant said early Sunday that "many unofficial sources say the majority of hostage deaths were caused by toxic effects of the gas and not gunshot wounds, though the authorities continue to deny this."

Russian authorities have refused to name the gas used in the theater, explaining only that it was an experimental "neuroparalytic" agent developed by the FSB security service for use in hostage situations. Unofficial sources, quoted by Echo Moskvi independent radio, say the gas may contain the powerful tranquilizer Valium, or a nerve agent such as sarin or VX. On Sunday, the US government officially requested information about the substance used, noting that at least one American citizen is among those still hospitalized and suffering from the gas.

The US Embassy in Moscow told news agencies that it can't locate one of the two known American hostages. Russian authorities Sunday said they've been questioning some of the freed hostages, and promised to begin releasing those who felt well enough to go home.

If true, the allegations of toxic gas will badly tarnish what Putin supporters have called a "breakthrough" for the Kremlin leader. Putin has brought three years of relative political stability to Russia, but failed so far to lift the country from its post-Soviet demoralization or to generate sustained economic growth.

His actions in the hostage crisis have their defenders. Galina Spirina, a political adviser to Kremlin human rights commissioner Sergei Mironov, says: "Even if it is proven that some people died from the gas, it should not change the public attitude. Storming the building was the only way to handle that situation, and the casualties were minimal."

'War is where you are.'

Others disagree. Irina Flige, head of the St. Petersburg chapter of the human rights group Memorial, said her group was organizing peace demonstrations on Sunday because the episode has shown that Russians are equally terrorized by terrorists and their own authorities. "No one can justify terrorism, but circumstances show that the Chechnya war gave rise to the hostage-taking in the theater. President Putin and the security services acted with negligence and extreme disregard for the lives of Russians when they ordered the building stormed. How can anyone say we are more secure today?"

Even without the controversy over the gas, the sudden appearance of the brutal three-year old Chechen war in downtown Moscow has produced what may be an abiding change in the Russian psyche. "What we've learned is that we cannot behave in Chechnya as if we were in a state of war and in Moscow as if we were in a state of peace," says Viktor Shenderovich, a Russian TV personality. "The war is where you are."

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