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Russian Health Officials Identify Gas As an Opiate

BY Admin  October 30, 2002 at 3:01 PM EDT

Russian Health Minister Yuri Shevchenko identified the gas at a news conference Wednesday, ending the government’s secrecy over the type of substance Russian special forces used to incapacitate the Chechen guerrillas who held some 800 hostages in a popular Moscow theater.

“To neutralize the terrorists, a substance based on Fentanyl derivatives was used,” Shevchenko said, adding that the substance alone is not lethal.

The Fentanyl-based gas killed all but two of the 119 hostages who died in the siege. Hospital officials said most of them died of respiratory and heart failure. Of those rescued, 245 remain hospitalized, with eight in a serious condition.

Fentanyl, a fast-acting opiate, is primarily used as a general anesthetic and sedative. In large enough doses, the highly-addictive opiate can cause respiratory failure and death.

Shevchenko said that it was fatal in this case, especially to people with existing heart conditions, since the hostages’ health was weakened from lack of food, water and oxygen during the 58-hour standoff.

Since the standoff ended Saturday, Russia has come under intense pressure from Western governments to identify the gas used in order to help doctors treat the victims and dispel concern that a nerve agent had been used. During his news conference, Shevchenko denied the gas violated the international ban on chemical weapons.

“I officially declare: chemical substances which might have fallen under the jurisdiction of the international convention on banning chemical weapons were not used during the special operation,” Shevchenko said.

U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow on Tuesday criticized Russia’s government for keeping the substance’s composition a secret, saying more hostages could have been saved if the doctors treating them had known what the gas was.

“It’s clear that with perhaps a little more information, at least a few more of the hostages may have survived,” he said.

Andrei Seltsovsky, chairman of the health committee of the city of Moscow, said at a press briefing on Sunday that he had been notified about the emergency only minutes before the first gassed hostages were taken from the theater.

Moscow’s top anesthesiologist, Yevgeny Yevdokimov, said Sunday that doctors could not provide specific antidotes because they did not know which type of gas poisoned the hostages.

But Shevchenko on Wednesday said doctors had been notified of the operation in advance.

“Specialists were warned, including me, even though the operation was an emergency,” Shevchenko said, adding that thousands of doses of antidote had been prepared.

At the same press briefing, Moscow Prosecutor Mikhail Avdyukov promised to conduct a thorough investigation into the deaths of the hostages.

“We are not going to conceal anything,” he said.

Meanwhile, Danish authorities in Copenhagen late Tuesday said they had arrested Akhmed Zakayev, a top aide to Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov, adding he may have been involved in the Moscow hostage-taking and other terrorist attacks. Danish authorities acted after Russia requested Zakayev’s extradition, the Associated Press reports.

A Danish judge ordered that Zakayev be detained until Nov. 12, pending investigation.