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Gas enters counterterror arsenal

The unprecedented use of a secret toxic gas leaves 400 still hospitalized, and starts a debate about Russian tactics.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 29, 2002


Russia's unprecedented use of an unidentified gas – in lethal dosages – to end a hostage crisis is writing a new chapter in the counterterrorism playbook.

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It also raises a host of questions about the ethics and legality of the gas, the competence of the rescue operation, and the tight cloak of secrecy the Russians are maintaining around it.

Though a chemical weapon is typically used as a battlefield tool, this time it was effective in stopping a terrorist takeover of a theater. Witnesses say that their Chechen captors were unable to detonate their explosives or fire their guns, and fumbled to put on gas masks before succumbing. But the dosage was too high, leaving 1 in 7 hostages dead. The second wave of Russian forces to enter the Moscow theater were all poisoned too, and 400 civilians remain hospitalized, some in intensive care.

"We have military chemists who think they can use this chemical weapon well, but in this case they were not very professional," says Lev Fedorov, head of Russia's Union for Chemical Safety, and a 33-year veteran of the Russian Academy of Sciences who first began working with chemicals in the Soviet military half a century ago.

Complicating life-saving efforts, officials so far refuse to name the toxic gas used, the dose deployed, or any antidote. Authorities say the rationale is that, without such information, any future terrorists or hostage-takers won't be able to defend against what may now be seen as one of the most useful weapons in Russia's arsenal. To incapacitate the hostage-takers, security services pumped the ventilator shafts full of enough gas to knock out fully healthy guerrillas – a dose that appears to have been too strong for many of the exhausted, weak, and dehydrated hostages.

When the freed hostages arrived at the hospital, treatment information was vague, say Russian media reports. "Doctors were not told what to do, and this is a crime," says Mr. Federov, pointing out Russia's long tradtion of keeping state secrets. "This is the consequence of our stupid, total secrecy. Our military chemists are not under society's control, or under [President] Putin's control."

But analysts say that the Kremlin – faced with the possible loss of more than 750 civilian theatergoers at the hands of Chechen rebels who boasted that they were "eager" to use their 30 explosive devices to bring down the building and become martyrs – had few choices.

"There were two ways to prevent an explosion," says Yury Mosichuk, a toxicologist at the Military Medical Academy in St. Petersburg. "Deliver an unexpected blow to the head, which was impossible. Or this narcotic way."

In the absence of official information, speculation continues about the gas – which some suggest may be a product banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention, to which Russia is a signatory.Substances with a similar effect are already well known, however, and reside in a gray zone of prohibited chemical weapons. Any toxic substance that can kill or incapacitate for long periods is illegal – though exemptions exist for law enforcement.

Mr. Mosichuk insists the gas used was a "common gas" like an anaesthetic, which "has nothing to do with battle, the military, or poisonous substances." The official silence about how to treat it is "natural," he adds, because "that information might allow future terrorists to prevent such an outcome."

Already, some argue that the Russians have given up too much operational detail, simply by being forced to conduct the storming of the theater in downtown Moscow. "Even the detailed coverage of the operation on TV means terrorists will be better prepared next time, and they will have masks and they will check up all the ventilation systems," an unnamed special forces soldier told the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper. "Many things do have to stay secret."