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Two gases wereused
Written by   
, 04 2002
During the storming of the theatrical center on Dubrovka, the gas was most likely a mixture of fentanyl and halothane.
ImageWestern governments continue to besiege the Russian Foreign Ministry, trying to find out the composition and formula of the gas used by security services during the storming of Dubrovka.
Requests and demands “to tell the truth” have arrived from the foreign ministries of the United States, Germany, Britain, and several other countries whose citizens were among the hostages, whiled the Chinese government requests we sell them the recipe for the substance.
In this case, the most active have been the Americans. “We want to get this information because it is badly needed by doctors treating patients,” said U.S.State Department spokesman Richard Boucher last Tuesday. “But we have yet to receive a response from Moscow.”
Even harsher criticism of Russia heard from unofficial U.S. sources. Forexample, Lisa Harris, a leading expert on chemical weapons, directly accused the Russian authorities of demonstrating “Soviet-style” thinking, and, in the same vein, said that the use of the unknown substance had torn the mask of humanity from the face of President Putin. “In this case,” Ms. Harris declared, “the composition of the gas needs to quickly be made public.”
In Israel they were afraid to use gas
Such a zealous desire on the part of the American specialists to get whatever data necessary on the gas, as well as details about the special operation, is explainable not simply by their wish to help fellow citizens who were held hostage overcome the negative effects of the assault. TheU.S. and other governments in the West are much more interested in catching up to Russia in the development and manufacture of chemical weapons, as well as gaining our experience on their use. Thefact that this operation by our security forces, during which a terrorist-neutralizing gas was used, was unprecedented, and the substance almost certainly has no analogue in other countries.
According to Igor Prokopenko, a leading expert in analyzing the activities of security services in real-world situations, there have only been two times that security forces considered using a sleeping gas in a closed premises, and each time it was the Israelis. In1976, Palestinian terrorists seized an Air France airliner and planted explosives around the fuselage. Inthe end, however, according to Mr. Prokopenko, “the Israelis decided to use other means.” The second time the application of gas was considered by Israeli security forces was in 1994, when the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas kidnapped Israeli soldier Nachshon Waxman. Hewas being held in an Arab house in the village of Beit Hanina on the northern outskirts of Jerusalem. “Before the security forces surrounded the house, they seriously discussed the possibility of using gas to neutralize the terrorists,” said Ze’ev Khanin, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University during an interview with ‘Expert’. “Out of fears that it might adversely affect the health of persons not directly involved in the operation, and fear of condemnation from the international community, they decided to drop these plans.” In America, according to Hugh McGowan, the chief of the New York City Police Department, security forces have never used anything other than tear gas.
Types of gases
In accordance with the generally accepted world system of classification, chemical warfare agents with psychochemical activity are divided into two groups: lethal, and non-lethal. Atthe same time, clearly distinguishing between these is practically impossible. Nevertheless, experiments with substances belonging from the first group are not allowed under the International Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling, and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction (signed by a majority of UN member countries, including Russia and the U.S.). TheConvention, however, does not block work on drugs in the second group. Thecountry with the most success in the creation of such substances was the Soviet Union.
Until the late 1960s, the Americans and the Soviets maintained parity in this area, but that all changed in 1969. According Lev Fyodorov, president of the Union for Chemical Safety, that year America carried out a very disastrous test on sheep in one of the midwestern states. Itinvolved the use of a form of lethal gas. Theherd was almost instantly killed, but the cloud of volatile compounds drifted in the wind, resulting in the deaths of other animals whose participation in the experiment was not originally planned. Theincident received wide publicity, and the U.S. president at the time, Richard Nixon, in trying to reassure the public, ordered the minimization of experiments and work on chemical weapons, including non-lethal gases. “Over here,” according to Mr. Fyodorov, “everything went the other way.”
In early 1991, the commander of the Chemical Defense Forces, General of the Army Stanislav Petrov, together with a group of scientists from the Chemical-Pharmaceutical Institute, received the Lenin Prize for creating of a new generation of non-lethal chemical warfare agents. Aslater became known, the military chemists were awarded the Lenin Prize for practical development. Thatis, the gas, developed under the leadership of General Petrov, was mass produced and adopted by the special services of the USSR and, apparently, our army.
General Petrov, as well as other Russian military chemists, prefers to remain silent about the special operation carried out by ‘Alfa’ group. Atthe highest level of government, it was decided that Health Minister Yuri Shevchenko would be the one to talk about the gas used by our security forces.
Last Wednesday, Mr. Shevchenko made an official statement. According to him, substances based on fentanyl were used to neutralize the terrorists. “These drugs are medicines that can provide a rapid anesthetic effect,” said Mr. Shevchenko. “They are widely used in medical practice, and of themselves cannot cause death. Russian experts are totally sure of this. Inthis situation, however, the anesthetic was applied to people whose bodies were, in medical terms, in critical condition due to starvation, dehydration, and inactivity.”
Fentanyl is a drug in the opiate group that was first synthesized in Belgium during the late 1950s. Since the early 1960s, it has been widely used in cardiac surgery, and since the mid-1970s as a narcotic.
According to German expert toxicologist Thomas Zilker, maximum care should be observed during the use of fentanyl, because the margin between the permissible dose and an overdose is very small. There is an intravenous painkiller based on fentanyl, manufactured under the trade name of ‘sublimize’.In the late 1970s, there were two other analogues of fentanyl: alfenta, a short-acting painkiller, and sufenta, a potent pain reliever that is used in heart surgery. Illegal use of fentanyl was first detected in the early 1980s, and ever since has remained a problem for the medical community, mostly in America. Another problem is that calculating a correct dose is very difficult. “Fentanyl is a hundred times stronger than heroin, so it should be administered only in the presence of a physician experienced in resuscitation, and in the presence of appropriate equipment,” said Dr. Zilker. Incomplete agreement is Andy Oppenheimer, the leading American expert on chemical weapons. “The side effects we observed in the former hostages, vomiting, disorientation, and paralysis of the respiratory tract, are similar to those caused by the use of fentanyl,” said Dr. Oppenheimer.
Halothane plus fentanyl
The substance used during the Dubrovka assault, however, contained more than fentanyl, and here is why: fentanyl as a rule is available in powder or liquid form. Making pure fentanyl airborne, and then introducing it into the building through the ventilation shafts, is theoretically possible. Itwill be much heavier than air, that is, it will not have sufficient volatility and will settle near the ventilation ducts. Inaddition, such a compound would not act immediately, and not on everyone in the auditorium. Atthe same time, when details about the assault became known, it was revealed that the gas was pumped into the building and began have an almost effect. “Once the gas came, my husband and Irealized that it was the beginning of the assault, and we immediately covered our faces with our clothing,” said Olga Chernyak, an ‘Interfax’ employee who was held hostage. Another witness of the assault, who asked that his name not be used, gave similar testimony. “When the gas came after the first shootings of the hostages, Isaw a terrorist sitting on stage jump up and try to put on a respirator. Isaw how he made a few convulsive movements, trying to pull the mask onto his face, and then he fell down,” said former hostage.
This all means that, together with fentanyl, another, much more volatile gas was used. Mostexperts we queried stated with confidence that this was the gas halothane. Typically, an anesthesiologist administers it prior to surgery in order to quickly put the patient to sleep. Halothane mixes easily with air, and spreads rapidly around a room. Russian officials will not directly confirm or deny information that halothane was used together with fentanyl. Academician Robert Glushkov, director of Center for Drug Chemistry at the Russian Academy of Medical Science, received a government award for creating new products for military use. Hetold ‘Expert’: “During the special operation, fentanyl or its derivatives could only be used an aerosol mixture, which is not done during peacetime.” Academician Glushkov replied evasively to our question as whether fentanyl was used with halothane. “In principle, fentanyl can be mixed with many gases, including those based on halothane,” he said.
Thus, during the special operation carried out by ‘Alfa’ group, a non-lethal chemical agent based on fentanyl and, presumably, halothane, was used. Thismixture is not used for peaceful purposes, but the international Chemical Weapons Convention does not expressly prohibit their development, production, and use. Twoquestions remain. Thefirst one: how justified were our security forces in using a gas based on fentanyl to rescue most of the hostages? Here, all the experts in their assessments, from the most emotional to the most diplomatic, are in agreement. Theformer includes Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Vasilyev: “There was no other way, otherwise everyone would have perished.” To the later belongs Boaz Gaon, head of the Israeli Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya: “During such a complex operation, the use of this gas is justified, though it is a novel decision.”
The second question is: would it have been possible to do it with fewer casualties? Inour view, it is meaningless to ask this question now. Aswas already mentioned, never before has such an operation been carried out, so that means there was no real-world experience. Under the conditions, and also at risk of losing nearly a thousand lives, no normal person could dare reduce the concentration below what would guarantee results. Onthe fourth or fifth try, perhaps, everything might be done a bit more accurately, but God forbid that there ever is a next time.
By Alex Khazbiyev
Sunday, November 3rd, 2002
In ‘Expert’ #41 (347) / November 4th, 2002
Irik Imamutdinov, Elena Rytsareva, and Mikhail Chernov were involved in preparing this material.

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