Gas enters counterterror arsenal

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

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.

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."

The gas was created "in a KGB laboratory and their chemical substances are still considered the best in the world," the soldier was quoted as saying, adding that the decision to use gas was made "at a very high level" and required "dozens of signatures.

"If it were a usual storming, we'd have had 150 casualties among our soldiers, added to the hostages. But we're not kamikaze," the soldier said. "There was as much gas as was necessary.... As to the chemical formula, special services of the world are trying to get it."

American experts suggest that the substance used was BZ, an aerosolized hallucinogen known in the US as QNB, or 3-Quinuclidinyl Benzilate. It is sufficiently powerful that the American military created an arsenal of QNB shells for military purposes.

"There are some gray areas," says John Hart, a researcher in the Chemical Biological Warfare Project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. "You have to consider what the intent was: The US stockpile, which the US has destroyed, was clearly designed for the battlefield. But if you are talking about a law enforcement situation, maybe there is more room for interpretation [of its legality under international law]."

Such an explanation won't answer the questions of the relatives of those killed, who wonder why the gas meant to save the hostages killed so many.

Some survivors say they had the presence of mind to breathe through moist cloth at the critical moment, they spoke of a bitter smell, and of watching how quickly the people around them appeared to drop off to sleep.

"The woman terrorist, who was guarding us, put on a mask, but she was a complete fool – she put it on upside down," dentist Modest Silin told the English-language daily The Moscow Times. "We tried to signal to her that she should turn it the right way up.... But while she was putting it the right way up, she inhaled too much of that smoke."

Some of the armed Chechen captors mounted resistance from the stage, which was higher than the theater floor, and so not as affected by the heavy gas, according to the reported accounts of security officials who took part in the raid.

Two out of 200 or so antiterrorist "Alpha" and "Vympel" troops attached to Russia's former KGB were affected by the gas, even though they stormed the theatrer 30 minutes after the gas was pumped in and were breaking windows to allow in fresh air. The Russian Interior Ministry troops who came next took no precautions against the gas, and were floored by it. "Having breathed in the air in the hall, all our detachment– as if there were a command given – began to vomit," said Alexander, a soldier quoted in the Moscow daily Kommersant.

Experts say that the Soviet Union began working on such substances in the 1920s, and in 1991 considered using gas to put down a putsch at Moscow's White House, though it was decided that the building was too large to fill uniformly.

As the theater crisis moved into its third day, and the Chechen's vowed to begin killing hostages unless Putin began withdrawing Russian troops from Chechnya, Interior Ministry officials decided that use of any normal riot control agent – irritants such as pepper spray or tear gas – might give the captors time to harm the hostages.

"So the decision was made to use the strongest," reports Komsomolskaya Pravda, which named the material as a "psycho-chemical gas" known as "Kolokol-1." Effects are felt within one to three seconds, and people can be knocked out for two to six hours. "The gas had such an influence on [Chechen siege leader Movsar] Barayev, that he couldn't get up from [his] desk," the paper reported.

The effect on the hostages was also acute, but could have been worse, says Mosichuk, the toxicologist. "One could have expected an even higher death toll," he says. "But there was no other way to prevent an explosion."

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