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Gas enters counterterror arsenal

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But analysts say that the Kremlin – faced with the possible loss of more than 750 civilian theatergoers at the hands of Chechen rebels who boasted that they were "eager" to use their 30 explosive devices to bring down the building and become martyrs – had few choices.

"There were two ways to prevent an explosion," says Yury Mosichuk, a toxicologist at the Military Medical Academy in St. Petersburg. "Deliver an unexpected blow to the head, which was impossible. Or this narcotic way."

In the absence of official information, speculation continues about the gas – which some suggest may be a product banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention, to which Russia is a signatory.Substances with a similar effect are already well known, however, and reside in a gray zone of prohibited chemical weapons. Any toxic substance that can kill or incapacitate for long periods is illegal – though exemptions exist for law enforcement.

Mr. Mosichuk insists the gas used was a "common gas" like an anaesthetic, which "has nothing to do with battle, the military, or poisonous substances." The official silence about how to treat it is "natural," he adds, because "that information might allow future terrorists to prevent such an outcome."

Already, some argue that the Russians have given up too much operational detail, simply by being forced to conduct the storming of the theater in downtown Moscow. "Even the detailed coverage of the operation on TV means terrorists will be better prepared next time, and they will have masks and they will check up all the ventilation systems," an unnamed special forces soldier told the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper. "Many things do have to stay secret."

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