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Russia Broadening Military’s Power

October 28, 2002

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MOSCOW (AP) _ President Vladimir Putin said Monday he will give the military broader power to strike against suspected terrorists ``wherever they may be″ after a hostage siege at a Moscow theater ended with 118 captives dead, most from a knockout gas used by Russian authorities.

Doctors said all but two of the hostages who died succumbed to the fumes pumped into the theater by Russian special forces before they stormed it, 2 1/2 days after heavily armed Chechen rebels staged an audacious raid.

Russian officials kept the substance a secret even as doctors treated the hundreds of survivors. U.S. officials identified it Monday as an opiate related to morphine.

Also Monday, the U.S. Embassy said it had located a body believed to be that of an American who died during the rescue operation. Two Americans are believed to have been in the theater.

Consular officials were trying to find someone who could positively identify the body, an embassy spokesman said, declining to comment on the cause of death or give any other details.

In televised comments, Putin said he would step up measures against terrorists because of what he called growing threats that they could use powerful weapons, and he suggested Russia would not refrain from launching strikes abroad.

``Russia will not ... give in to any blackmail. International terrorism is becoming more impudent, acting more cruelly. Here and there around the world threats from terrorists of the use of means comparable to weapons of mass destruction are heard,″ Putin said at a meeting with government ministers.

``If anyone even tries to use such means in relation to our country, Russia will answer with measures adequate to the threat to the Russian Federation. In all places where the terrorists, the organizers of these crimes or their ideological or financial sponsors are located,″ he said. ``I emphasize: wherever they may be.″

Putin has sought to portray the Chechen conflict as a battle with international terrorists, partly to get broader support abroad.

The Bush administration, meanwhile, refused to criticize Russian special forces for using the gas, laying all of the blame for the deaths squarely on the captors.

``We are working to ascertain all the facts and circumstances,″ Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said. ``But as that information is developed the president feels very strongly that the people who caused this are the terrorists. ``

Putin has said the theater raid was planned abroad, and the Russian Foreign Ministry alleged Monday that al-Qaida was involved.

In a statement, the ministry said a Chechen conference that opened Monday in Denmark was organized ``by Chechen terrorists, their accomplices and their patrons from al-Qaida, who, as is now absolutely obvious, stand behind the monstrous terrorist act in Moscow.″ It did not provide evidence.

The statement came amid increasing criticism about the number of hostages killed at the theater and the way they died _ as a result of the methods used by Russian authorities trying to save them.

Three top Moscow doctors revealed Sunday that many of the people found dead inside the theater were killed by the sleeping gas, and they were not sure how to treat the survivors.

Russian authorities did not tell medical officials what type of gas they pumped into the theater shortly before special forces troops raided it early Saturday, chief Moscow doctor Andrei Seltsovsky said.

A U.S. Embassy spokesman said Monday that Western doctors had examined some of the former hostages and concluded ``the agent they were exposed to appears consistent with an opiate rather than a nerve agent.″

Russian officials have refused to tell the U.S. Embassy what exactly the gas was ``despite repeated formal requests,″ the spokesman said on condition of anonymity.

The gas can paralyze breathing, blood circulation, and cardiac and liver functions, doctors said. The effects were worsened by the extreme conditions endured by the hostages during their 58-hour ordeal _ little movement, lack of water, food and sleep, severe psychological stress _ and by the chronic medical problems some suffered.

``In standard situations, the compound that was used ... does not act as aggressively as it turned out to do,″ Seltsovsky said.

There were about 800 people in the theater when it was seized by Chechen gunmen during Wednesday night’s performance of the popular Russian musical ``Nord-Ost,″ or ``North-East.″

The Moscow Health Department said 405 former hostages, including nine children, remained hospitalized Monday after 239 were released. At least 45 remained in grave condition Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matviyenko said Monday.

Two foreign women, one Dutch and one Austrian, were among the dead, and officials in Kazakhstan said a 13-year-old girl from their country died _ one of three children who perished.

Anguished relatives crowded the gates of Moscow hospitals, begging for news of their kin, while others scoured the city morgues.

Tatiana Lukashova’s 26-year-old daughter, Masha Panova, was a hostage and now is missing.

Lukashova saw a broadcast on the ORT television station Saturday that showed her daughter lying on a mattress in a hospital corridor with an oxygen mask on.

``But we didn’t hear what hospital it was, and our search through all the hospitals was in vain,″ Lukashova said in a telephone interview.

``It’s unbelievable,″ she said, tears choking her voice. ``Even the head of the district where we live went to meet officials of ORT to find out in which hospital they filmed the girl, but they told him they can’t tell without permission from prosecutors.″

Even diplomats had trouble finding information about the estimated 70 foreign citizens among the hostages.

Putin declared Monday a day of national mourning. Schools in Moscow started the day with a moment of silence. Hundreds of mourners streamed to the theater to lay flowers, candles and teddy-bears along a driveway leading to the building.

Pensioner Lyudmila Yemelyanova lamented the deaths but said, ``There was no other way.″

``If the explosives inside had gone off, not only the theater but all the neighboring buildings would have been destroyed,″ she said, echoing the explanation offered by officials.

The death toll among the hostages stood at 118 on Sunday, including the 116 who died from the gas, a woman who was shot in the early hours of the crisis and a hostage who was shot in the head early Saturday.

Moscow officials said Monday that relatives of the dead would receive about $3,150 in compensation, while hostages who survived would get half that, Interfax reported. The city will pay for funerals, it said.

The Federal Security Service said 50 assailants were killed at the theater; several were shot in the head apparently as they lay incapacitated from the gas. Three gunmen were captured, and authorities searched the city for accomplices who might have escaped.

Moscow police arrested a Chechen after finding an explosive substance on him and in his car, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported Monday. The man also had extremist Muslim literature, it said.

Some of the attackers who burst into the theater Wednesday night had explosives strapped to their bodies; 18 were women who said they were widows of Chechens killed by Russian forces.

They mined the theater and threatened to blow it up unless Putin withdrew Russian troops from the rebellious, predominantly Muslim region of Chechnya.

Russian forces pulled out of Chechnya after a devastating 1994-1996 war that left separatists in control. In the autumn of 1999, troops returned after Chechnya-based rebels attacked a neighboring region and after apartment bombings that killed about 300 people were blamed on the militants.

In 1995 and 1996, rebels seized hundreds of hostages in two raids in southern Russia near Chechnya, and dozens of people died in both cases. Many of them were killed when Russian forces attacked the assailants.

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