Massacre in Moscow

By Patrick Cockburn in Moscow

27 October 2002

Anger and suspicion were mounting in Moscow last night

as it emerged that most of the hostages who died in an

operation to end a three-day siege in a theatre might

have been killed by sleeping gas pumped in to

incapacitate their Chechen captors. 

After initial relief at official claims that just 10

to 20 of the 800 hostages were killed in an assault by

Russian special forces, the mood changed as the figure

rose. By nightfall, it was clear that at least 90

hostages were dead  several of them with respiratory

problems in hospital  along with nearly all of the 50

Chechen terrorists who seized the theatre on

Wednesday. The two British hostages still held, a

mother and son, were safe, however. 

The elite Alpha special service unit assaulted the

building after sleeping gas had been pumped through

the ventilation system. Many of the Chechen fighters,

some of them women with explosives strapped to their

waists, were rendered completely unconscious or unable

to resist  and unable to carry out their threat to

blow up the building, along with the hostages. 

While casualties were heavy, many Russians had

expected a general massacre which few would survive.

But questions multiplied as a fuller picture emerged.

It appeared not only that most of the hostage-takers

had been shot while unconscious, but that few of the

captives were killed by gunfire or explosions. Doctors

at the City Hospital, where more than 320 of the

hostages were taken, said none had gunshot wounds,

Russian television reported. The internal security

service, the FSB, disclosed it had used a specially

developed gas in the operation, but refused to say

what it was. 

The authorities were seeking to dispel speculation

that many had been asphyxiated. According to hostages,

they realised they were becoming sleepy and confused,

but no one reported seeing a vapour cloud, smelling a

chemical or experiencing the sort of irritating

symptoms associated with tear gas. Footage aired on

independent television in Georgia showed doctors

reputedly from hospitals in Moscow saying the hostages

who died were poisoned by the gas. They described the

gas as a neuro-paralysing agent, that disables the

nervous system. 

In a television address, President Vladimir Putin

said: "We could not save everyone. Please forgive us."

In the hours after the siege, haggard relatives

gathered around the gates of hospitals, desperate to

find out the names of those alive. The body of the

terrorists' leader, the notorious Movsar Barayev, was

shown on television with a brandy bottle near his

outstretched hand. A federal security service official

later said that the well-armed raiders had foreign

links and contacts with unspecified embassies in


The Russian authorities presented the end of the siege

as a triumph for President Putin, who had refused to

negotiate with the terrorists.The end came after the

Chechen rebels shot dead two people and wounded two

others who tried to escape from the theatre. 

The shootings took place between 5am and 5.15am,

according to Vladimir Vasilyev, the deputy Interior

Minister. Fearing this was the start of the systematic

executions of hostages threatened by the Chechens, the

Alpha unit and the Interior Ministry's Vityez

battalion, a total force of 300, immediately began a

carefully prepared assault. 

Over the previous two days, they had carried out a

detailed reconnaissance, planting video cameras and

listening devices in the ceiling of the theatre. They

also looked for ventilation shafts, windows and entry

points which the Chechens had failed to guard. As the

sleeping gas was pumped into the ventilation system,

Alpha troops smashed through the glass doors at the

front of the building. Television footage showed the

troops kicking in the doors and opening fire, the

thunder of their weapons setting off car alarm shrieks

in the parking lot. The hostages were brought out,

some of them in the arms of special forces, and most

were loaded unconscious into city buses. 

From video cameras inside the theatre, the troops had

known the positions of many of the gunmen, who were

asleep along with hundreds of hostages. The troops

immediately shot dead veiled Chechen women who had

explosives strapped to them. Sounds of fighting went

on for over an hour, with shots and the occasional

crash of grenades as the troops swept through the

maze-like complex. Those in charge had feared that the

800 hostages and 300 assault troops might all be

killed if the Chechens were able to detonate the drums

of explosives they had planted. 

The authorities said that in addition to the Chechen

fighters inside they had seized a number of people

with mobile phones outside the theatre whom they

believed were Chechen spies. Interior Minister Boris

Gryzlov said later that about 30 accomplices of the

gunmen were arrested in the Moscow area. 


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