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Gas clouds Moscow rescue

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

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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 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."

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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."