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Gas attack kills 90 hostages
Written by ЮРИЙ Ъ-ЛЬВОВ   
Воскресенье, 27 Октябрь 2002

Various authors, in Kommersant.ru (27.10.2002)

Early yesterday morning soldiers from the ‘Alpha’ special operations unit stormed the theatrical center at Dubrovka, where Movsar Barayev’s group of suicide martyrs was holding 800 hostages. The terrorists were destroyed and a majority of the hostages ended up hospitalized. The leadership of the special operation judged it to be a ‘B+’. Its long-term consequences, however, have turned out to be dramatic: the gas used by the special forces killed many more hostages than the terrorists did.

Exhausted negotiations

It has become known to reporters, that preparations for the assault began on the very first day. Representatives of the special services and politicians had scarcely entered into negotiations with the terrorists, when the operational headquarters began to examine using force to free the hostages. Generals at the headquarters said that there would not be a second ‘Budennovsk’ (back then a group of Basayev’s men captured a small city in the Stavropol region, and were released with some of the hostages back to Chechnya). ‘Alpha’ group soldiers prepared for an assault by practicing at the Meridian theatrical complex on Profsoyuz Street. To prevent information from reaching the captured theater on Dubrovka, since, according to the FSB, there were accomplices in the crowd outside the cordon reporting all military and a police activity, this training was done in maximum secrecy. Everything was done at night, and plainclothes officers, who used certain excuses to chase away the curious and passersby, secured even the approaches to the Meridian.

The tactics of those laying siege to the Dubrovka theater were the standard ones: exhaust the negotiations, during which the military and police tried to free the maximum number of hostages and minimize the possible losses. To some extent this tactic was successful: members of parliament who arrived at the theater – Josef Kobzon, Irina Hakamada, as well as former Ingushetia president Ruslan Aushev, and others – led tens of persons out from the building. A majority of the 80 hostages freed before the storm, however, escaped on their own, making their way from premises not under terrorist control. By the second stage of the negotiations it was decided to include criminal ‘godfathers’, including those in prison, though in the end their aid was never necessary.

Shooting

On Friday the terrorists forced the child hostages to call their parents and demand that they hold an anti-war demonstration on Red Square, promising to free their prisoners if this were done. The authorities, however, did not allow the demonstration and made rather harsh declarations. Valentina Matvienko declared at the meeting with relatives of the hostages: “There will be no concessions.” In reply, the terrorists promised that, if the authorities did not begin the immediate withdrawal of forces from Chechnya, they would start shooting hostages. The first, they declared, would be shot at 6 am on Saturday. Shooting, however, was to begin an hour and a half before this time: two hostages, a man and a woman, apparently finding out from the television or radio news about the ultimatum, tried to escape. Their run for freedom ended without success. “Seeing that they were heading toward the exit, the Chechens began shooting. The man, it seemed to me, was hit by a bullet in the eye, and the woman in the stomach,” recounted former hostage Alexey. “The ‘Chekhi’ started running around the auditorium and shouting that now they’d shoot everyone and set off the bomb. The bomb looked a barrel full of plastic explosives or TNT and stood on a chair in the very center of the hall, and it was full of ball bearings.”

The Chechens, however, did not start shooting anyone, or try to set off their bomb. They dragged the wounded out into the foyer where an ambulance team picked them up. Tatiana Starkova and Pavel Zaharov, despite their serious wounds, were alive. (Trans note: The truth is even more dramatic: a third hostage had attempted to disable the large bomb in the center of the hall, and Starkova and Zaharov were accidentally wounded when the Chechens fired on this hostage. Zaharov latter died on the operating table at Veteran’s Hospital #1 across the street from the theater.)

As soon as the ambulance left, the special forces were put on higher alert. Later, deputy FSB chief Vladimir Pronichev held his last consultations with the Kremlin, after which the assault order was given.

They finished off the women out of fear of convulsions

The command came at 5:20 am. By this time the ‘Alphas’ were already ready to attack. (According to NTV, soldiers had already started entering the theatrical center on Thursday.) One group entered the building through the underground passageways and tossed into the ventilation system a military paralyzing nerve gas. (Trans note: Actually it was an aerosol of a narcotic based on Fentanyl). Another group broke windows and enter the building from the rear, while a third moved through the foyer. The huge ‘Nord-Ost’ poster covering the windows over the auditorium was opened up using fire from the soldiers’ grenade launchers, which are attached under their rifle barrels. These grenades were also loaded with gas (sic). Then several BTRs (armored vehicles) full of interior ministry troops moved up to the building. “Machineguns were loaded and we were given the command to shoot at the building windows if any armed people were to show themselves,” said a sharpshooter later. “But the special forces didn’t need any fire support. They took care of it all on their own.”

“I didn’t know what was going on. The assault began while we were sleeping in our seats. There were shots, explosions, then something seemed to get stuck in my throat,” recalls hostage Sergey Novikov. “They (the terrorists) warned us that, if we tried to hide during the shooting, they would set off their bombs. So no one lay down under chairs. Everyone simply jumped and covered their heads with their arms. Later we couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t even move. It was if I was paralyzed. I thought: this is it. This is the end. Later, I don’t know how much time passed, but consciousness returned. Some fellow in a dark uniform was carrying me over his shoulder. I remember that he had a long rifle in his other hand. He was probably a sniper.”

The gas used by the special forces, a participant in the assault later said, caused paralysis from the very first breath. They did not use concentrations that were dangerous to life, but “the premises were closed and the people had been hostages for three days, and they were physically and mentally worn out. So no one considered the consequences. But orders are orders.”

Once in the building, the special forces split up. One group wearing gas masks worked directly in the captured hall. The other covered the foyer and dressing rooms. The last group was the first to make armed contact. It was they who destroyed Movsar Barayev – the only one of the terrorists who went unmasked from the very beginning. One of the special forces soldiers put a bottle of Hennessy cognac that was lying on the floor in the gunman’s hand. Probably they wished to show the ‘true’ face of this fighter for truth, but the trick did not come off – the bottle was dusty and the seal unbroken, and the Wahhabist Barayev, as people who knew his family recounted, preferred narcotics.

The ‘Alphas’ did not have to fight in the auditorium, but to save people. Only a few of the gunmen, who for some reason were not knocked out by the gas, tried to resist, but, under the action of the gas, those taking part in the assault said, they hit mostly the hostages around them. The terrorists were dealt with within five or ten minutes. The female suicide martyrs, who remained sitting in their seats, were finished off with gunshots to the back of the head.

“They finished off everyone who had explosives,” tells on ‘Alpha’. “Because these people could still leave, or, the opposite, they could go into convulsions. To keep them from accidentally hitting the button, they did ‘control shots’ (trans note: finished them off with a shot to the head).”

According to several witnesses, one of the suicide martyrs was taken alive. Three presumed participants in the hostage seizure were also detained. One of them was in the building, while another two were in the crowd outside the cordon. They had been reporting to their associates by cell phone the actions of the special forces. At least one other pair of gunmen managed to hide by mixing with the hostages, and they are still being sought in hospitals and other places throughout the city.

Journalists were not allowed into the building after the assault. FSB officers made a video for the television stations after all the hostages were evacuated. The bodies of the gunmen still remained. Firstly, this was for the effect on the viewers, while secondly, it was for the forensics and other investigators who needed to examine the crime scene. Our correspondent, who managed to get inside the building for a few minutes, saw a frightening tableau: the floor of the foyer was covered with broken glass, and everywhere lay discarded syringes and puddles of blood. In the auditorium, in spite more than an hour having passed since the operation, it was still difficult to breathe, and the gas made one’s head swim. To air out the premises, the special forces soldiers broke the glass and cut ‘windows’ in the ‘Nord-Ost’ poster on the façade. Bomb disposal teams went to work on the bodies on the stage, relieving them of their ‘cargo’. Other bodies, which they had yet not managed to remove, were lying in the aisles and sitting in the seats. They were mostly women. As was explained by operations officers who took part in the autopsies, the special forces had not shot all of them. Several had died, asphyxiated by their own vomit. The gas caused vomiting.

Triage

They began to bring the first of the hostages from the building about 30 minutes after the start of the special operation. At first only ambulances and corpse transports drove up to the foyer, but later buses arrived. There were more than 100 ambulances active, but this was still insufficient. As our correspondent working at the theater complex witnessed, corpses and the living where tossed together into ambulances, while the vehicles only drove off after there was no room left inside.

Driving about 300 to 400 meters from the center, the ambulances stopped on the square where the victims and bodies were finally sorted out.

“Wounded here, corpses there,” shouted some woman in a bloody lab coat.

Through the window of an arriving ambulance one could see somebody’s legs wearing orange boots. When the doors were opened, it turned out that there were seven people lying inside, piled in a heap. A large woman was first tossed onto a gurney alongside black bags with the dead, but later one of the doctors found that she had a pulse. The victim was once again loaded into an ambulance, but this time on a gurney, while the others who were lying alongside her were packed into body bags.

The rescuers, as well as the special forces soldiers, later said that people who immediately received antidote injections and artificial resuscitation remained among the living. Those who were in the toxic premises longer than half an hour could not be saved, no matter what assistance was provided.

After the assault, the deputy interior minister, Vladimir Vasilev, said that they had managed to rescue 750 hostages. The fifty terrorists, of whom 18 were women, were destroyed. Two hundred hostages, according to unofficial data, ended up hospitalized in unconscious conditions, and physicians were fighting for these patients’ lives. No one could make a prognosis as to how many they would be able to save. That morning General Vasilev affirmed that during the assault 34 hostages had died, and then later he said that the number of dead had climbed to 67. That evening several physicians, even though they had signed non-disclosure statements, were speaking about 90 deaths. The majority of the deaths were not due to gunshot wounds, but from cardiovascular pathologies, obviously caused by the action of the nerve-paralyzing gas (sic).

Apparently, in order not to ruin the statistics, Vladimir Vasilev, who with the leadership of the nation and the FSB had characterized the operation as brilliant, and awarded its participants a ‘B+’, by that evening corrected himself. He declared that there were not 700 or so hostages in the building, as was stated earlier, but about 1000. The law enforcement agencies consider it a success if less than 20% of the prisoners die during the hostage rescue operation. As far as those dying in hospitals, no one could be faulted for that.

SERGEY DYUPIN

ANDREY SALNIKOV

OLGA ALLENOVA

MAKSIM VARYVDIN

How the gas acts

Physicians who are working with the rescued hostages have signed non-disclosure statements, and so yesterday evening we were unable to get any official commentary about the action of the special substance that was used. Other specialists were reluctant to comment on the situation. We did, however, receive several unofficial comments. According to the physicians, during the storm they (the special forces) sprayed as gas that acted with either a sleeping, or a nerve paralyzing, action. In the first case the substance acted on those centers of the brain responsible for breathing, while in the second case – on the musculature, including the ones that allow the lungs to work. If this happened, the method to “start up” the patient would be through mouth-to-mouth resuscitation or by connecting him to an apparatus for artificial ventilation of the lungs (AVL). AVL can be performed not just in a hospital setting, but in emergency vehicles as well. Frames from the video chronicle show people carried from the auditorium receiving indirect heart massage, though it is being done not by physicians, but soldiers, and such a means of resuscitation in complex situations is poorly effective.

When breathing is absent, if the heart is still beating normally, then they wasted several minutes. The heart will slow down in stages, finally to full standstill. One of most common causes of asphyxiation is when the tongue falls into the throat. This is a danger not to those carried out over someone’s shoulder, but dragged “by their hands and feet”.

The hostages could have suffered from different actions of the special substance, even though they were all in the same place. Those who were asleep probably inhaled a smaller dose of the substance than those who were awake, frightened, and actively breathing. Besides this, it is known that the hostages had been given medicines to help calm them. These were most likely tranquilizers or sedatives, and in either case it is possible that the effect of the gas on those who took these pills would have stronger.

In several video frames one can see special forces soldiers running into the theater, carrying some types of small suitcases. One cannot rule out that these held antidotes to neutralize the action of the special substance. This could be in the form of an aerosol or in syringes, for example.

Asphyxia and cardiac arrest would be a cause of death, as well as destruction of brain cells. The physicians cannot even speak about what long-term effects the action of the gas might have on the their patients, since they do not know exactly what substance was used during the assault. In principal, the use of the special substance can be compared with a narcotic: the most important information is the dose the patient received, and how he was brought out of that condition.

YURI LVOV


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