Russia is ignoring international requests–including many from the US embassy in Moscow–to identify the gas, which left 117 hostages dead in a Moscow theater raid this weekend.
Chechen rebels had held 750 hostages in the theater since last Wednesday. Russian troops pumped the gas into the theater’s ventilation system before raiding the building.
Russian authorities initially claimed the raid was called because rebels had begun executing hostages. But the Moscow Health Community Center reports that only one hostage died of gunshot wounds.
According to The New York Times, US officials say the Russian security police might have used an aerosol version of a powerful, fast-acting opiate called Fentanyl. US medical experts say that Fentanyl is dangerous to children under 12. Survivors and relatives of victims said that at least 10 of the dead were children.
Meanwhile, US officials say they are confident the Russian authorities did not use an illegal nerve gas in their mission to rescue the 750 hostages from the Moscow theatre.
Senior US authorities and private experts also say the agent was probably similar to one of an arsenal of non-lethal weapons that the United States is quietly studying for use by soldiers and police officers.
According to the Guardian, respected scientists on both sides of the Atlantic warned yesterday that the US is developing a new generation of weapons that undermine and possibly violate international treaties on biological and chemical warfare.
In Moscow family members of the victims are angry. Russian authorities have yet to issue definitive lists of victims and survivors, or to allow hospital visits even for relatives.
Health officials report they were not notified until a very short time before the raid that they should be prepared to treat patients for overdoses of the gas. Ambulances on the scene were unprepared to treat people.
The chief Moscow doctor yesterday said medics are struggling to treat their largely unconscious patients without an effective antidote.
- Vil S. Mirzayanov, former Soviet chemical weapons specialist. He believes the gas is a modification of BZ gas, a toxic chemical agent that he worked on. In September 1992, he revealed that the Soviet Union had produced the most lethal binary nerve agent known to mankind. Known as Novichok (The Newcomer) it was up to 10 times more powerful than its nearest US equivalent known as VX. He was jailed twice for whistle blowing.
- Anne Nivat, Moscow correspondent for the French newspaper, Libération. Her book, Chienne de Guerre: A woman Reporter Behind the Lines of the War in Chechnya (Public Affairs, 2001) tells of how she managed to do what almost no other journalists have done: she covered the war in Chechnya from within Chechnya. Dressed as a Chechen woman, she traveled with civilians, her satellite phone strapped to her belly. She spent the winter of 1999-2000 in Chechnya, surviving the height of the war and left only when the Russian Federal Security Services detained her. She returned to Chechnya several times and was there in June of this year.
- Mark Wheelis, Senior Lecturer, Department of Microbiology at UC Davis