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Moscow raid 'novel, but deadly'

By CNN's Avril Stephens

A high death toll was incurred to end the theatre siege
A high death toll was incurred to end the theatre siege

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Russian special forces carried out a "novel" attack to end the Moscow theatre hostage crisis -- but incurred a high death toll in its execution, a military expert says.

About 750 people were saved in the dawn raid by Russian forces on Saturday, but 67 of the hostages died in the operation and a further 42 were taken to hospital, apparently suffering from gas inhalation.

A sleeping gas was used to confuse and disarm the 50 Chechen rebel hostage-takers during the storming of the building, in which all of the 75 non-Russians and 25 children are believed to have been freed unharmed.

Jim Condon, a military expert for UK security company AKE, told CNN: "Russian special forces had no option but to carry out the attack after the hostage-takers were reported to have begun carrying out their threat of killing the captives.

The use of a sedative gas was a unique and well-planned idea, put into place early on in the three-day siege.

"I have not seen a sleeping gas used before in such a situation," Condon said.

"It seems it was in the Russian arsenal and they had planned to use it. They could not have got it into place so quickly on Saturday morning otherwise. It was part of their repertoire and they were working to a plan."

The Russian special forces faced a unique situation, with so many people having been taken, being held in a such a small building and with so many well-armed terrorists around them. It would have been easy for the rebels to have killed all the hostages, Condon said.

Television footage showed Russian troops calmly approaching the building before the raid.

"They knew the gas would have been used and that there would be minimum resistance, and they did not want to cause any unnecessary disturbances," Condon added. The elite Alpha force, part of Russia's former KGB, had carried out other preparational work such as getting people into the theatre, to ascertain who was in the building, the numbers involved, and how well armed they were.

The building was reported to have been booby-trapped, with mines at the entrances and exits as well as passageways and on the seats. Some of the women hostage-takers had explosives strapped to their waists and a huge bomb was in the centre of auditorium.

It is not clear how many of these went off, if any. Special forces searching the building after the operation said they found 30 devices.

The Russians knew what they were up against in the character of the hostage-takers, having been faced with previous Chechen attacks, Condon said.

The biggest was in a southern Russian hospital in 1995 when 1,000 patients were held captive at Budyonnovsk, near the border with Chechnya.

Russian troops unsuccessfully stormed the hospital twice, and more than 100 civilians, police and soldiers died in the gun battles.

Seventy-eight people, including police offices, soldiers and civilians, were killed in a separate incident six months later when another group of Chechen rebels raided a hospital in the southern Russian town of Kizlyar, taking hundreds of hostages and using them as human shields.

"The Chechens have acted extremely brutally in the past. They are willing to die, there is no doubt about that," Condon said.

"We know they are absolutely committed to their cause. The use of women in the crisis is a political statement saying that the entire community is involved in their campaign."

They had used a Russian anniversary this weekend to highlight their cause on the international arena.

The crisis was proving to be the sternest test faced by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Anna Matreeva, of the London-based security organisation Safer World, told CNN Putin's options were not looking good, but that he was "forced to do something under public pressure and with all the international spotlight on him."

But the death of 67 hostages was a high toll.

"It is a success, but it has been tainted by the fact that so many innocent people have lost their lives," Condon added.

"Russia has proved that it is determined not to give into these Chechen rebels."

It is not clear how many of the captives were killed by the hostage-takers and how many were caught in the cross-fire with Russian troops.

"We have to find out through an autopsy on how the hostages died," Condon said.

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