More Questions Than Answers

Ask Alexander Shabalov for details about the pre-dawn raid to save hundreds of hostages in a besieged Moscow theater on Oct. 26, and his swarthy face becomes set in anger, he smokes a few more cigarettes and his hands begin to shake. "Almost every single hostage was still alive when we came into the theater," says Shabalov, head of Moscow's quasi-governmental Rescue Services. It was only after they were freed, he says, that the dying began.

Shabalov, a 44-year-old former paratrooper and KGB man, is one of the officials who has found himself catapulted into the spotlight over questions about how Russian forces used disabling gas to rescue the more than 800 people held by Chechen separatists. As many as 128 died in a rescue operation that is still raising questions and suspicions among Russians trying to find out just why so many lives were lost.

Unlike many involved in the rescue, though, Shabalov is one of the few trying to find the answers. Perhaps that is because the theater tragedy echoes a personal one that he endured 10 years ago, when his 3-year-old daughter was injured in a car accident. "When I ran to a militia post with my bleeding girl in my arms, the policeman had no radio," says Shabalov. "When I finally found the hospital, the surgeon had gone home for dinner." His daughter died waiting for medical care. "I know what negligence, inaction and poor planning is," says Shabalov.

And when almost 100 of his men, with no warning or information, raced in to help evacuate hundreds of hostages, leaving their gas masks in their rescue vans because they weren't told disabling gas had been pumped into the theater, he faced that negligence again--this time, he believes, on a "criminal" scale.

According to Shabalov, Russia's Emergency Situations Minister Sergey Shoigu "personally took away our digital camera and 90 minutes worth of videotape," including 40 minutes that detailed the bulk of the evacuation, from the moment victims were unconscious in their chairs to their haphazard removal, dragged by their feet and arms and placed on their backs on the theater's main steps. (Shoigu has not responded to the allegations.) The Rescue Service is required by law, says Shabalov, to record their work. Now Shabalov is prepared to sue to get the tape back. "There is nothing on that tape that qualifies as a state secret," he says. "There is, however, material that could be used to make conclusions about criminal action, or inaction, that led to human victims."

Questions are also being asked about whether Russian authorities had made any plans at all to minimize casualties after the raid. In the chaotic minutes and hours following the gas attack, the city bus drivers who carted away most of the hostages did not know the addresses of local hospitals. Many of those hospitals did not have toxicology wards. Panicked doctors begged semi-conscious victims to tell them what had happened to them.

And then there is the question of the timing of the raid. Journalist-negotiator Anna Politkovskaya told a radio program the day after it took place that although she understood the need of the FSB security services to prepare for an operation, she was "absolutely certain that there was a chance to reach an agreement [with the hostage-takers]. "It seemed to me that all options to release hostages had not yet been exhausted that night," she said.

To add the confusion, there is a lingering doubt that fentanyl was the only substance used to gas the theater, raising questions as to whether the Russian government has really disclosed what it pumped through the theater's ventilation system. Why did the hostage-takers not set off their explosives? And why was there not more of an effort to capture some hostage-takers alive, given that they could have provided reams of intelligence about the plot and perhaps future plans?

There is no question that Vladimir Putin's popularity in the wake of the crisis is soaring. But the strain is showing. At a recent EU-Russia summit in Brussels, the agitated Russian president shocked an entire conference hall by suggesting to a French reporter quizzing him on Chechnya come to Moscow to "get circumcised" in such a way that "nothing ever grows from you again." A European Commission spokesman called Putin's comments "highly regrettable." Putin's aides raced to say the president was "exhausted" and "sick and tired of Chechnya."

But Russia's press barely took notice, except to rationalize the outburst. At home, Putin is a hero, with approval ratings hovering at 77 percent. His tough talk on Chechnya is reminiscent of the rhetoric that helped get him elected two years ago, when he threatened to destroy Chechen separatists, even in the "outhouse." Support for the war is also on the rise. Almost 50 percent of Russians recently polled think Russian troops are not being tough enough in Chechnya.

Some Chechens believe this reaction is exactly what Putin wanted when he ordered the storming of the theater rather than continuing to negotiate for the hostages' release. "The military and the FSB have a deadlock in Chechnya," says Ousman Ferzaouli, Denmark's representative for Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. "They needed new adrenaline to convince the Russian people to support this war."

Meanwhile, the truth about the raid may be forever obscured. Doctors have signed forms saying they will not discuss the event. Russia's upper house of Parliament has voted to restrict media access to information during terrorist acts and Russian lawmakers in the pro-Kremlin lower house rejected two proposals to set up an independent commission of inquiry into the siege. Supporters of the proposal say the inquiry is needed to review Kremlin assertions, especially the main claim that Putin only launched the operation after the rebels began executing hostages. Two hostages were shot in the hours before the raid, but survivors say that was only after one of them ran to the front of the hall with a bottle in his hand.

Olga, 21, a hostage survivor too afraid to give her last name, says there was no talk of imminent executions in the theater. She did hear shooting right before the raid, "but it sounded like it was outside, there was no shooting inside the building." Yet she has no doubt her captors were prepared to use their explosives. When the gas started filling the room the hostage-takers who called all the shots were not physically present in the hall. "The women and the younger boys took orders for everything. They would not set those explosives off on their own," she says.

When Olga saw the grayish gas cloud wafting into the theater she covered her mouth with a scarf and hit the floor. She was one of the few hostages who never lost consciousness and the cloud she saw may provide some clues to the gas used. Some Russian newspapers argue that fentanyl, a strong narcotic, could not have been used alone. They speculate that another powerful drug--the anesthetic gas halothene--must have been used to aerosolize the mixture, with recommended dosages doubled or trebled for maximum impact. Others, such as whistle blower and 26-year veteran of Russia's chemical weapons program Vil Mirzayanov, suspect a military gas may have also been used. "In the 1980s we developed an analogue to the well known psychotropic drug BZ, which we called Substance 78," he told NEWSWEEK. It is a hallucinogenic drug, says Mirzayanov, "which causes people to have happy dreams, to sleep and not to care about wars and weapons. It would have a grayish-violet color when mixed with halothane in aerosol form."

Peter Kaiser, a spokesman for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in Amsterdam, says his organization is still in contact with the Russians regarding the "technical details" of the gas used. But, he says, "based on the elements of information" provided by the Russian government, his organization is of the view that "no violation of the [Chemical Weapons Treaty] has occurred.

Inside Russia, asking too many questions can still be risky. Russian journalist Andrey Soldatov and others from the Versiya newspaper who helped him write a damning report on the FSB's action, are being questioned by a Russian prosecutor. FSB investigators have already confiscated Soldatov's files and computer. Nonetheless, he is still trying to dig for answers. "If there were really so many explosives in the theatre, up to two tons, wouldn't they have evacuated the nearby houses?" asks Soldatov.

Rescue Services chief Shabalov also has larger concerns. "The correct decision was made [to gas and storm the building]. But as for the victims, this is criminal inaction," he says. "Was this an accident, or did someone want to discredit the President?" With so much stonewalling, it's hardly surprising that conspiracy theorists are having a field day.