- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 31, 2002

MOSCOW Russia's top health official said yesterday that the gas used in the storming of a Moscow theater held by Chechen gunmen was based on fentanyl, a fast-acting opiate with medical applications, Russian news agencies reported.

Health Minister Yuri Shevchenko said the compound was an anesthetic and would not normally cause death, the Interfax and Itar-Tass news agencies reported.

"By themselves, these compounds cannot provoke a fatal outcome," Mr. Shevchenko was quoted as saying.

Two more hostages freed from the theater died overnight from the effects of the gas, bringing the total number of hostages killed to 119, all but two from the gas, Lyubov Zhomova, a spokeswoman for the Moscow health committee, said.

In Copenhagen, Danish police detained a top aide to Chechen rebel President Aslan Maskhadov, after Russia sought his extradition, saying he was suspected of involvement in the hostage-taking, as well as other terrorist attacks.

A judge ordered Akhmed Zakayev, who was in Copenhagen attending a World Chechen Congress, jailed until Nov. 12 pending an investigation.

The minister's announcement in Moscow appeared to be an attempt to counter criticism that the lack of information about the gas used in the special forces raid on Saturday may have increased the number of fatalities.

But Mr. Shevchenko said the deaths were caused by the use of the chemical compound on people who had been starved of oxygen, were dehydrated, hungry, unable to move adequately and under severe psychological stress.

"It is precisely these factors that led to a fatal outcome for some of the hostages," Mr. Shevchenko said.

However, injected, skin patch and oral doses of fentanyl sold in the United States carry warnings that the anesthetic can be fatal if administered in too high a dose, and that doses must be customized, taking into account the patients' size and to any previous exposure to similar drugs.

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.

The hostage-takers seized the theater, with more than 800 people inside, on Oct. 23. They demanded that Russian President Vladimir Putin withdraw Russian troops from Chechnya, where the most recent war began in 1999.

On Tuesday, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Alexander Vershbow, said the lack of information provided by Russian authorities "contributed to the confusion after the immediate operation to rescue the hostages was over."

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

Dr. Thomas Zilker, a toxicology professor at Munich University Clinic in Germany, said yesterday that blood and urine samples from two Germans among the former hostages showed traces of halothane, a gas used as an inhaled anesthetic. He said he believed the gas pumped into the theater likely also contained other substances.

Families and friends continued to bury victims of the standoff yesterday. At a small chapel at Moscow's Kalitnovo cemetery, Vladimir Zhulyov's relatives were joined by dozens of colleagues of the cellist, who played in the orchestra for the musical and died from the gas.

Across the city, weeping child actors from the musical buried two of their colleagues at the Vagankovo cemetery: Kristina Kurbatova and Arseny Kurilenko, both 13.

As of yesterday morning, 230 rescued hostages remained hospitalized, 15 of them in serious condition, the Interfax news agency said.

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