Putin’s Gas

MOSCOW. The dreadful truth about the end of the Moscow theatre siege was becoming clear yesterday. The secret gas, pumped into the building to knock out the Chechen rebels and allow crack Russian troops to storm the building just before dawn on Saturday, killed scores of hostages and caused many others to slip into a coma.

Andrei Seltsovsky, Moscow’s most senior doctor, said last night that 115 of the 117 hostages who died as the siege ended were killed by the gas. Only two died of gunshot wounds. Nearly 650 hostages remained in hospital, 150 of whom were in intensive care, with 45 said to be in “grave condition”. Out of the 117 dead, Dr Seltsovsky said only 53 had been identified.

Despite the rising death toll, the Russian government was refusing to reveal details of the gas used in the assault, referring to it only as “a special substance”. In the hours immediately after the end of the siege, the official Russian position was that many of the victims had died of heart attacks, shock, or lack of medicine for pre-existing ailments.

Dr Seltsovsky said: “In standard situations, the compound that was used on people does not act as aggressively as it turned out to do. But it was used on people who were in a specific [extreme] situation for more than 50 hours.” Moscow’s chief anaesthesiologist, Yevgeny Yevdokimov, said he was unable to identify the gas but suggested it was a “narcotic substance similar to a general anaesthetic in surgery”. It can paralyse breathing, cardiac and liver functioning, and blood circulation.

According to other sources, the gas, so powerful that it caused the Chechen gunmen to fall unconscious even before they could pull the triggers on their bombs, was developed by the FSB security service. But the agency, the successor to the KGB, is refusing to tell doctors the identity of the gas or provide an antidote. The gas was secretly pumped into the theatre at about 5.30am after two hostages had been killed.

As the number of dead hostages–on Saturday put at 67–rose by the hour, the mood of people milling around outside the gates of hospitals became more and more frantic. All had relatives caught in the theatre who, along with their Chechen captors, fell unconscious after inhaling the gas.

Yelena Buchkova, tears streaming down her face as she stood on the steps of the Sklifosovsky medical institute, held out a photograph of a fair-haired young man. “It is my son Alexei, such a good boy,” she said between sobs. “I can’t find him in the hospitals or in the mortuary. Maybe he is in a coma because of the gas and they don’t know his name.”

Ever since she heard about the Russian assault, Mrs Buchkova had gone from hospital to hospital in Moscow vainly searching for Alexei. “Nobody will say anything or let us in and we have to plead for somebody to come to the door to look at the photograph,” she complained.

At the Sklifosovsky Hospital only a few relatives were allowed inside after their passports were checked and then only to see doctors. None was allowed to see the former hostages.

The first two hostage deaths attributed to the gas were foreign nationals. Russian NTV television quoted Dutch and Kazakh officials, each saying that one of their nationals had died from the effect of the gas.

The American embassy in Moscow later demanded that Russia identify the gas used so that a US citizen could be properly treated.

The soaring death toll, and the failure to produce an official list of survivors, meant that relatives were having to traipse around Moscow’s many hospitals in cold, driving rain.

“The only place they seem to be well organised is in the mortuary,” said Olga, who was had been looking in vain for her son-in-law, Uri.

At City Clinical Hospital No 13, which is caring for the largest number of hostages, the black iron gates remained firmly shut. At the Sklifosovsky, the sick hostages were being kept in a separate wing sealed off by a ring of special forces troops. Sergei Samoylov, a journalist from the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets, opened his jacket to show a white medical gown underneath. “I thought I could slip in by pretending to be a doctor,” he said. “But no way. I could not have got in even if I were invisible.”

Yelena and her husband, Sergei, agreed that the Russian authorities were right to attack the theatre to prevent the Chechen gunmen blowing it up, killing all inside. “It is a great thing that so many survived, but they should have prepared to help the hostages affected by the gas,” Sergei said.

Mr Samoylov said the government was keen to keep charge of the former hostages for two reasons: “They want to interrogate them to see if any are terrorists, and they would like to keep them away from journalists so they don’t talk about what happened in the theatre.” At Hospital No 13, one patient was detained on suspicion of helping the Chechens.

Most Russians accept that the government had no alternative but to launch an all-out assault. But the authorities’ secrecy, which echoes their behaviour during the Kursk submarine disaster two years ago, is probably caused by embarrassment that the gas, though crucial to the attack’s success, should have killed so many of their own people.


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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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