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Thursday, 31 October, 2002, 14:59 GMT
Q&A: What is Fentanyl?
Q&A graphic
Russian security forces used gas based on the painkiller fentanyl as they stormed the Moscow theatre on Saturday in which 800 hostages were being held by armed Chechens.

More than 100 of those killed in the siege are believed to have died as a result of inhaling it.

BBC News Online examines the properties of the drug - and what may have led to the high number of deaths.

What have Moscow officials now said about the gas?

The Russians have finally admitted that the gas used in the anti-terrorist mission was based on fentanyl.

While it cannot be delivered directly as a gas, there is a suggestion that the opiate-based drug was adapted to be delivered in aerosol form.

Earlier tests by doctors in Germany on some of the survivors had suggested the forces used an anaesthetic gas called halothane.

What is fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a powerful derivative of opium. It is significantly stronger than heroin.

It is administered intravenously or in patches for people with cancer or chronic pain.

It is often used as an alternative to morphine for those who cannot tolerate this drug.

It can cause euphoria, drowsiness and nausea.

In common with many opiate-based drugs, in high doses, it can adversely affect a person's breathing and can kill.

How was fentanyl used in the siege?

The US embassy in Moscow first suggested that a form of opiate gas had been used.

That theory stemmed from the fact that doctors had been able to treat survivors with a drug called naloxone. This is often used in hospitals to combat heroin abuse.

Drugs which are designed to combat nerve gases, on the other hand, seemed to have little effect on the hostages.

The gas was intended to incapacitate the hostage-takers and prevent from triggering explosives strapped to their waists and rigged around the theatre.

What effect do opiates have?

Opiates refer to a class of drugs that contain opium, ranging from heroin to morphine. They are sedative drugs, which depress the nervous system quickly and their effects can last for hours.

In high doses, opiates can make people drowsy. However, in excessive doses they can produce stupor and coma and even death from respiratory failure.

Why did the gas kill so many people?

Opiates are powerful drugs. Fentanyl is particularly strong. Given at the wrong dose, any of these substances can be fatal.

At excessive levels, they can cause patients to fall into a coma, to vomit, to stop breathing or to have a heart attack. In the worst cases, patients can die.

All of the hostages caught up in the Moscow theatre siege appear particularly vulnerable to the effects of the gas.

This was because they had been starved of oxygen, were dehydrated, hungry, unable to move adequately and under severe psychological stress.

Will the hostages suffer long-term damage?

The long-term effects of the gas on the survivors of the siege will depend on how they have each been affected.

If their bodies have been starved of oxygen then they are much more likely to suffer serious long-term effects.

A lack of oxygen can damage key organs including the brain.

Siege reports

Key stories

Chechen conflict



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