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Tuesday, 29 October, 2002, 16:05 GMT
Moscow siege gas 'not illegal'
Makeshift shrine for victim of Moscow siege
The majority of the victims were killed by the gas
Foreign doctors and US officials say they are confident that the Russian authorities did not use an illegal nerve gas in their mission to rescue 800 hostages from a Moscow theatre.


From the beginning we thought it must be anaesthetic

Dr Thomas Zilker
The US embassy in Moscow says its physicians believe an opium-based gas was pumped into the theatre just before Saturday's rescue operation in order to incapacitate the Chechen rebels inside.

A Munich doctor treating two German survivors dismissed the opiate theory, but also the earlier assertion by Western analysts that a nerve agent may have been used.

Dr Thomas Zilker said tests conducted on his patients indicated the use of a general anaesthetic, which could easily prove fatal if incorrectly administered.

As speculation about the gas continued in Moscow, the Russian military intensified its operation against Chechen rebels - one report said around 100 suspected militants had been detained in Chechnya in the past 24 hours.

But Russian forces also appear to have suffered a setback, with a helicopter shot down near their main military base in the republic killing all four on board.

Confusion continues

The first funerals of siege victims took place on Tuesday.

Theatre siege toll
Rebels shot dead: 41
Hostages killed by gas: 113
Hostages shot dead: 4 (at least 2 killed by rebels)
Still in hospital: more than 300
In critical condition: up to 27
At least 113 of the hostages who died in the theatre are believed to have been poisoned by the gas.

Four are said to have been shot. At least two were killed by the rebels, who had threatened to shoot all the hostages if Russia did not withdraw its troops from the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

It is unclear whether the other two were killed by the hostage-takers or by Russian gunfire during the rescue mission.

Russia's refusal to name the sleep-inducing substance fuelled speculation that the country had broken the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the use of poisonous gases and nerve agents.

Burying the dead

The use of the gas has been widely condemned as heavy handed, but Moscow insists it had little room for manoeuvre - faced with the prospect of 50 heavily armed rebels prepared to kill themselves and their hostages.

Most of the hostage-takers were shot during the rescue attempt, prosecutor Mikhail Avdykov said on Tuesday.

Those hostages who did survive have been treated with naxalone, a drug routinely given to patients who have overdosed on opiates such as heroin but which is also sometimes administered after anaesthetic.

Doctors say the fact that the hostages had been imprisoned in the theatre for nearly three days with little food or water made them particularly vulnerable to the gas.

Half of the survivors have now been released from hospital, and the rest are said to be in a stable condition.

Foreign support

The BBC's Jonathan Charles in Moscow says the high death toll continues to make the raid controversial, but the strategy is now being studied by foreign intelligence agencies.

Yuri Luzhkov deposits flowers outside the theatre on Monday
Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov honoured the victims
They are examining whether the deployment of gas might prove helpful if they are ever faced with similar sieges.

The White House has firmly pinned the blame for the civilian deaths on the hostage-takers.

President George W Bush "understands it is the terrorists with whom the blame lies", White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's tough line was also endorsed by the UK's prime minister on Monday who said there were "no easy, risk-free, safe solutions" in such a situation.

"I hope people will understand the enormity of the dilemma facing President Putin as he weighed what to do, in both trying to end the siege with minimum loss of life and recognising the dangers of doing anything that conceded to this latest outrage of terrorism from Chechnya," Tony Blair told Parliament in London.


 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Frank Gardner
"In laboratories around the world, scientists are looking for clues"
The BBC's Jonathan Charles in Moscow
"We're now seeing a military crackdown in Chechnya"
Professor Thomas Zilker, University Hospital Munich
"I'm quite sure they used a general anaesthetic gas used in Europe for years"

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