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Gas enters counterterror arsenal

The unprecedented use of a secret toxic gas leaves 400 still hospitalized, and starts a debate about Russian tactics.

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Russia's unprecedented use of an unidentified gas – in lethal dosages – to end a hostage crisis is writing a new chapter in the counterterrorism playbook.

It also raises a host of questions about the ethics and legality of the gas, the competence of the rescue operation, and the tight cloak of secrecy the Russians are maintaining around it.

Though a chemical weapon is typically used as a battlefield tool, this time it was effective in stopping a terrorist takeover of a theater. Witnesses say that their Chechen captors were unable to detonate their explosives or fire their guns, and fumbled to put on gas masks before succumbing. But the dosage was too high, leaving 1 in 7 hostages dead. The second wave of Russian forces to enter the Moscow theater were all poisoned too, and 400 civilians remain hospitalized, some in intensive care.

"We have military chemists who think they can use this chemical weapon well, but in this case they were not very professional," says Lev Fedorov, head of Russia's Union for Chemical Safety, and a 33-year veteran of the Russian Academy of Sciences who first began working with chemicals in the Soviet military half a century ago.

Complicating life-saving efforts, officials so far refuse to name the toxic gas used, the dose deployed, or any antidote. Authorities say the rationale is that, without such information, any future terrorists or hostage-takers won't be able to defend against what may now be seen as one of the most useful weapons in Russia's arsenal. To incapacitate the hostage-takers, security services pumped the ventilator shafts full of enough gas to knock out fully healthy guerrillas – a dose that appears to have been too strong for many of the exhausted, weak, and dehydrated hostages.

When the freed hostages arrived at the hospital, treatment information was vague, say Russian media reports. "Doctors were not told what to do, and this is a crime," says Mr. Federov, pointing out Russia's long tradtion of keeping state secrets. "This is the consequence of our stupid, total secrecy. Our military chemists are not under society's control, or under [President] Putin's control."

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