A mysterious gas used to incapacitate Chechen terrorists during a government operation to rescue hundreds of hostages here was responsible for all but one of the 117 hostage deaths, Moscow’s chief physician said on Sunday. The failure of the Kremlin to divulge information about the gas has angered doctors, diplomats and relatives of hostages, casting doubt on the effectiveness of the rescue operation.
ANDREI SELTSOVSKY, chairman of the Moscow city health committee, told reporters that just one hostage died from a bullet wound after Russian security forces stormed a central Moscow theater, where Chechen rebels held some 800 people hostage for three days.
“Of the 117 dead, one died of a gunshot wound,” Seltsovsky said.
Since the rescue operation Saturday morning, Russian officials have declined to comment on the nature of the gas used in the mission and hostages’ families were denied access to hospitals where their relatives were being treated.
The comments from a government doctor lifted the veil of secrecy that shrouded much of the aftermath of the operation to free the hostages, who the Chechen terrorists threatened to kill if Russian forces did not immediately withdraw from their campaign against the breakaway Russian republic. The rebels said they would detonate explosives to collapse the theater building if the Kremlin ordered an assault on the building.
With doctors confirming only one death from a gunshot wound, the comments also cast doubt on the Russian government’s claim that it launched the raid after the rebels executed two hostages on Saturday.
More than 24 hours after the attack, the Russian government has yet to inform many of the hostages’ families of the exact condition of their relatives — and, in many cases, whether they are dead or alive. The Kremlin remained silent Sunday as the death toll rose to 117 on the heels of government statements praising the success of the operation. Seltsovsky told a news conference that 646 of the rescued hostages were still hospitalized, of whom 150 were in intensive care and 45 “in grave condition.”
Some 70 foreigners are believed to be among the hostages, including at least two Americans. U.S. Embassy officials said Sunday. After fanning out to Moscow hospitals to search for the U.S. citizens, the officials said they located one individual. The second U.S. national was unaccounted for, and the officials said they had been blocked from visiting some medical centers.
On Saturday, U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow told reporters that Washington was also in the dark about the gas used in the raid. “We have only been given general information that it was an incapacitating or calming agent, but we do not know specifically the nature of the substance,” he said.
Evgeny Lushnikov, chief toxicologist at Moscow’s Sklifisovsky Hospital, where many hostages were being treated, said that the gas was used in “general surgical procedures” and that it had a “narcotic affect.”
COLD WAR WEAPON?
But similar assessments offered by several of the government’s leading civilian doctors were quickly disputed by independent defense experts.
Lev Fedorov, president of the Union for Chemical Safety, said the civilian doctors were taking the fall for what appeared to be a serious miscalculation by military toxicologists in administering the gas.
“It was designed to be administered as a non-lethal toxic agent for healthy men of average age,” Fedorov said, noting that the gas shared characteristics of an American agent called 3-quinuclidinyl benzilate, or BZ, which was developed for use on enemy soldiers, most of them adult males, during the Cold War. “But in this case it was administered to a group of people of all sorts — young, old, healthy and sick. It was not appropriate for them,” Fedorov said. But unlike the American version of BZ, he said the Soviet version knocked its target out faster — in 10 minutes rather than one hour.
Fedorov, a former chemical weapons scientist, said the agent was consistent with chemical gases developed by the Soviet Union and was not forbidden under an international chemical weapons treaty signed by Moscow. He said the FSB, one of the Soviet KGB’s successors and the government agency that planned the hostage rescue, has its own stocks of such agents.
Fedorov made clear that he supported the rescue attempt, but said the operation had a “heroic start and a tragic end with the stupidity of the storming,” when rescuers failed to take crucial steps to reverse the effects of the gas.
RESCUE ACTION QUESTIONED
Other experts also pointed to the response of rescuers to the use of the gas as a factor in the high number of hostage deaths. On Saturday, Russian television footage of the operation showed special forces troops carrying dozens of limp bodies out of the building and laying them down on their backs. For over an hour, rescuers hustled unconscious bodies out of the building. Many were then transferred to buses, where video footage showed some sitting in seats with their unsupported heads bent sharply backwards.
Doctors note the danger of an unconscious individual swallowing his tongue, or choking on vomit, when his airway is blocked — a process that can occur in the prone position or when a patient has lost control of bodily functions. The near-freezing temperatures on Saturday morning could have exacerbated the shock to the hostages reacting to the gas, doctors here said.
Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based defense expert, was critical of the apparent decision to keep medics away from the theater while unconscious hostages were carried out for over an hour. Russian soldiers were equipped with an antidote to reverse the effects of the gas, but reportedly could not cope with the large number of casualties.
“Maybe the soldiers didn’t know how to do it. Maybe they weren’t trained,” Felgenhauer said, noting that 100 ambulances were standing by but not allowed to approach the theater.
A Moscow government anesthesiologist, Yevgeny Yevdokimov, told reporters Sunday that other conditions during the rescue operation contributed to the high number of gas deaths, including the weakened condition of the hostages after nearly three days with no food and little water.
Chemical weapons scientist Fedorov agreed that such conditions could have exacerbated the effects of the chemical agent, but said rescue officials committed fatal errors by failing to take such factors into account. He said an antidote should have been administered immediately to the victims inside the building, rather than waiting until the bodies were carried outdoors. Also unclear, Fedorov said, was whether the antidote was administered to all the hostages, who were lying in disorganized fashion outside the building with no apparent coordinated effort to attend to them.
CITIZENS SENSE COVER-UP
While government doctors tried reassure anxious family members that the hostages were only exposed to a common anesthetic, relatives waiting for word of hostages said they detected a cover-up.
Tatyana Karpova, waiting outside Hospital No. 13 for news of her son, Alexander, said many families were losing confidence in the Russian authorities.
“Our government doesn’t help us at all. All the information on television is wrong. We have no information,” she said.
The comments from government doctors contradicted the frustrations of emergency room physicians attending to the victims immediately after the Saturday raid. They complained to Russian television that they did not know the formula for the gas, and were unable to treat victims. On Sunday, the same doctors declined to be interviewed.
Scientist Fedorov said the Kremlin’s reaction to concern over the gas bore the stamp of the Russian military holding onto its secrets long after the fall of the Soviet Union. “The government continues to keep secrets which should not be secrets,” he said.
MSNBC.com’s Preston Mendenhall is on assignment in Russia.