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Many Hostages Lost in Russian Theater Standoff

Discussion /

October 27, 2002 Posted: 10:07 PM EST (0307 GMT)
A girl leaves flowers at a memorial near the theatre on Sunday.
A girl leaves flowers at a memorial near the theatre on Sunday.  

A move by Russian security forces to end a hostage standoff in Moscow had dire consequences early Saturday. Authorities used a kind of sleeping gas - which medical officials say is a drug used to give anesthesia before surgery - to lull the hostage takers to sleep. While the gas was effective in bringing the crisis to an end, it also took the lives of 115 of the hostages, according to Moscow's chief doctor.

The standoff began last week when dozens of armed Chechen rebels stormed a theater in Russia's capital, taking about 800 people hostage. The dissidents demanded an end to the Russian war in Chechnya, and they held their captives for 58 hours. They also placed explosives around the theater and around some of their bodies, and threatened to detonate them if police entered the building in force.

Early Saturday, Russian authorities dispersed an unidentified gas throughout the auditorium. Officials say a massive concentration of it was used, which may be the reason for the hostages' deaths. Only two hostages died at the hands of the rebels; the rest were victims of the gas.

More than 600 former hostages were still hospitalized Sunday night. About a third of those were in intensive care, and some forty were described as being in critical condition.

Russia's head medical officer, Andrei Seltsovsky, explained why he thought so many hostages died. He pointed out that they had been seated for more than 50 hours without enough water or food, and that many of the victims had been suffering from chronic diseases. Seltsovsky said these factors, combined with the fact that rescuers were delayed by the special forces operation, contributed to the tragedy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin visits released hostages at a Moscow clinic Saturday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin visits released hostages at a Moscow clinic Saturday.  

Russian President Vladimir Putin apologized for the victims of the standoff. "Please forgive us," Putin said. "The memories of the victims must unite all of us." But he praised security forces for their work, saying that they "managed to do the impossible - that is to save lives of hundreds."

Putin said Monday would be a national day of mourning for the victims of what he called the "tragic consequences of the terrorist act in Moscow," according to Russia's Interfax news agency.

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