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Newsday October 29, 2002

Experts Name Deadly Gas

By Craig Gordon and Earl Lane

Washington -- U.S. officials now believe the Russian mystery gas used to end a standoff with Chechen rebels was fentanyl, an opium-style narcotic that was developed by the Russians as a knockout weapon but that can easily turn deadly.

At least 117 of the more than 750 hostages, along with 50 Chechen rebels who held them inside a Moscow theater, died after Russian special forces pumped gas into the theater during Saturday's raid. All but two of the hostages died after being incapacitated by the gas, which Russian authorities have refused to identify, even to doctors trying to save the victims.

President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, led a national day of mourning yesterday and pledged that Russia would not surrender to terrorist "blackmail." He vowed to give the military broader powers to move against suspected terrorists and their sponsors.

One U.S. source said intelligence officials believe the chemical culprit to be fentanyl, a synthetic opiate with properties like morphine. It also is produced illicitly as a heroin substitute for street sale that is 100 times more potent than naturally produced heroin.

In a riot-control setting, the gas can be used to dull the senses and incapacitate victims within 10 to 90 seconds of contact. Too much can push the victim into a state of paralysis that effectively shuts down breathing and circulation.

"These are very dangerous drugs, and you really have to have people who know how to use them," said Dr. James Cottrell, chairman of the department of anesthesiology at the State University of New York's Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn.

Russian doctors reportedly tried to treat the theater hostages with atropine, a common antidote to many types of nerve gas, but it didn't work. Officials said 405 of the freed captives remained hospitalized, 45 of them in grave condition. Cottrell noted press reports that Narcan, which reverses the effects of opiates, was used to treat some of the hostages successfully.

Kyle Olson, a chemical weapons expert, said the theater raid was in a "gray zone" as to whether it violated chemical weapons treaties. The chemical weapons convention bans some agents outright but allows the use of others in a riot-control setting.

The U.S. official, who asked not to be identified, said the Russians developed fentanyl as a knockout gas before the international chemical weapons treaty was adopted in the 1990s, and U.S. intelligence was aware it was in the Russians' stockpile. U.S. researchers in recent years had suggested to Pentagon officials that they explore the use of opium derivatives for possible use as non-lethal weapons, known as "calmative" agents, although that research has been on hold amid worries it would violate chemical treaties.

John Pike, director of the nonprofit GlobalSecurity.org, remained skeptical of reports that the Russians had used a medical anesthetic or morphine aerosol and suggested the mystery agent may have been derived from a nerve gas.

"The Russians are clever, but I think it is far more likely that they've come up with something that started out life as a nerve gas rather than as an opiate or a medical anesthetic," Pike said.

The Bush administration made no effort to publicly chastise the Russians over the raid, and President George W. Bush's spokesman said the Chechen "terrorists" -- not the Russian government -- are at fault.

"This is a tragedy ... but he understands it is the terrorists with whom the blame lies," spokesman Ari Fleischer said. The muted reaction comes as the White House this week is seeking Russian support for a new UN resolution on disarming Iraq.

Special correspondent Knut Royce contributed to this article.


Copyright 2002, Newsday, Inc.