Report: Nerve gas killed Russian hostages

By NATALIA ANTELAVA  |  Oct. 26, 2002 at 6:46 PM
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TBILISI, Georgia, Oct. 26 (UPI) -- Footage aired on independent television in Georgia shows doctors reputedly with hospitals in Moscow saying the several dozen hostages who died in Saturday's dramatic rescue were poisoned by the gas Russian forces used to wrest control of the Chechen-held theater.

The interviews were obtained by Ekho Moskvy, but authorities there would not allow the Russian station to air them, Rustavi-2 television announced in its broadcast. So Ekho Moskvy journalists went to their colleagues in Georgia, a former Soviet satellite just across the border from Russia's Chechnya province.

The doctors in the footage described the gas as being a neuro-paralyzing agent, one that disables the body's nervous system. The description contrasts with other reports that described it as a sleeping gas.

The distinction is an important one for Georgians, who remember that then-Soviet forces used such a gas in Tbilisi in April 1989. The bloody clash between soldiers and pro-independence demonstrators that culminated on April 9 of that year killed 20 of the protesters, mostly young men and women.

If authentic, the comments in the footage also contradict what has been so far the official explanation for the hostages' deaths. Several hours after Russian special forces stormed the theater, Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Vasilyev denied reports that hostages succumbed to the effects of the gas. They had been weakened, he said, "because of the stress, they were hungry, they were not given timely medical assistance while they were held hostage."

More than 50 ambulances had rushed to the scene to evaucate the wounded as buses transported the unhurt survivors. About 445 of the some 700 hostages were taken to hospitals around Moscow immediately after the rescue, according to Itar-Tass. The Russian news agency also reported doctors as saying that most would be able to go home on Sunday. So far about 90 hostages are reported dead.

The Georgian government almost immediately condemned the Chechen hostage taking. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze declared the crisis "proves once again that the fight against terrorism requires a unified effort."

The popular response has been more negative, however. Despite the fact that most Georgians are Christian and most Chechens Muslim, many Georgians expressed a "it could have been us" sentiment to United Press International.

Part of the fear comes from the conflict over Pankisi Gorge, a beautiful but rugged region of Georgia near the Chechen border that Russia says is a haven and training area for Chechen militants. Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened military operations in the Pankisi Gorge if Georgia itself does not control the rebels there.

A Chechen-born film director who recently filmed a documentary about Pankisi Gorge told UPI: "We are sorry for the innocent lives that have been lost (in the Moscow hostage crisis). We know what it's like because our own (Chechen) people have died for the past decade day after day."

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