Russians Bury Theater Siege Victims
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MOSCOW (AP) _ Weeping relatives tossed dirt on the coffin of Col. Konstantin Litvinov as Russians began to bury the hostages killed in a standoff with Chechen rebels. For the first time, the United States questioned Russia’s refusal to identify the gas used in the rescue operation.
``It’s clear that perhaps with a little more information, at least a few more of the hostages may have survived,″ U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow said.
The incapacitating gas was intended to prevent the hostage-takers from triggering explosives strapped to their waists and rigged around the theater. It worked but it also knocked out most of the hostages, killing 116. Two other hostages died from gunshot wounds.
A senior Russian official, meanwhile, issued the Kremlin’s strongest defense yet of the decision to fill the Moscow theater with a secret gas before special forces raided it early Saturday, rescuing hundreds and killing 50 of their captors.
``There was not one scenario that could have guaranteed the lives of the hostages and the special forces in a theater filled with 330 pounds of explosive devices,″ said Sergei Yastrzhembsky, an aide to President Vladimir Putin.
Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov told the ITAR-Tass news agency that several dozen people had been detained in Moscow on suspicion of helping organize the takeover. They included a group of Chechens picked up in a minibus that allegedly had traces of TNT, the Interfax news agency reported.
As of Tuesday, 245 rescued hostages remained hospitalized, 16 listed in serious condition, Interfax reported. A total of 418 patients have been released. Among the dead were nine foreigners, including one American, Sandy Booker of Oklahoma City.
At a Moscow cemetery, Russian soldiers in heavy green coats marched under gray, rainy skies to pay their final respects to Litvinov, who was in the audience of the ``Nord-Ost″ musical production with friends when the terrorists struck. Litvinov’s body was laid out in uniform, surrounded by dozens of red carnations, as his anguished wife and grown children stood nearby.
Across town, friends of a 25-year-old engineer and theater lover, identified by Russian television as Alexei Batchkov, gathered on the muddy paths of the Kuzminskoye cemetery around a freshly dug grave. Russian television showed them throwing clumps of earth over the coffin.
The solemn funerals contrasted sharply with the mood inside Moscow’s hospital No. 13, where the black metal gates were finally opened to former hostages’ relatives _ some of whom had come daily to wait in the rain, pleading to be let in. Clutching flowers, the relatives cheerfully put up with two identity checkpoints to reach the hospital’s inner corridors.
While the Saturday rescue operation has been criticized in the Western media, most Russians appear to have accepted the losses. An attempt by the liberal Union of Right Forces faction in the Russian parliament to set up a commission to probe all aspects of the hostage crisis _ including the rescue _ looked doomed when it failed to win support of key centrist parties Tuesday.
``Fatalities would have been inevitable in any case,″ said Andrei Seltsovsky, chief of Moscow’s health department, according to Interfax. ``If the terrorists had simply left the building and surrendered to the authorities, many seriously ill people would have remained inside.″
The U.S. Embassy confirmed Tuesday the death of Booker, 49, an electrician who was among the hostages. Vershbow said one other American survived.
Vershbow said the lack of information provided by Russian authorities ``contributed to the confusion after the immediate operation to rescue the hostages was over.
Still, Vershbow said he wouldn’t ``second-guess″ the Russian decision to launch the assault.
``They had a difficult decision to make and with the bombs that were there they probably saved hundreds of lives even if we regret that more than 100 died, largely as a result of the gas,″ he said.
Russian authorities have provided the U.S. Embassy with some information about the effects of the gas used, but have not told them the name of the agent despite repeated requests. In Washington, U.S. officials said Tuesday the gas was an aerosol form of fentanyl, a fast-acting opiate that has many medical applications, or possibly a derivative of it.
At the Kremlin on Tuesday, Putin met with top officials to discuss strengthening national security, Russian news agencies reported.
Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said Putin ordered officials to draft revisions to the national security concept, in line with his pledge Monday to give the military broader powers to crack down on suspected terrorists and their sponsors ``wherever they may be.″
``We understand that the terrorist threat to Russia, including from outside, is increasing,″ Ivanov said.
The rebels who seized the Moscow theater Oct. 23 demanded that Putin withdraw Russian troops from Chechnya, where the most recent war began in 1999.