Moscow, Oct. 29 (Reuters): A grieving Russia buried the first victims of the Moscow theatre siege today, but the US ambassador said some might still be alive if the Kremlin had been less secretive about a gas that poisoned them.
After several days of US praise for Putin’s decisive handling of the siege, US ambassador Alexander Vershbow criticised the secrecy surrounding the gas which killed 115 hostages when it was pumped into the theatre to stun their Chechen captors.
And in a swift reminder to the Kremlin that the war in the rebel region of Chechnya was far from over, separatist guerrillas there shot down a military helicopter, killing four servicemen, as it landed at Moscow's main army base near the Chechen capital. The continued presence of Russian troops in Chechnya was the main grievance of the more than 50 heavily armed Chechen guerrillas who seized the Moscow theatre on Wednesday to demand the soldiers’ withdrawal.
All but two of the 117 hostages who died were killed by the mystery gas, believed to contain opiates, used by special Russian troops on Saturday to end the three-day siege. “To the best of our knowledge... we do think it was an opiate,” Vershbow told a news briefing.
“We regret that the lack of information contributed to the confusion after the immediate operation to free the hostages was over. It’s clear that with perhaps a little more information at least a few more of the hostages may have survived.” The downing of the helicopter came as defence minister Sergei Ivanov said Russia needed to tighten security to thwart further attacks.
“We admit that the threat of terrorism against Russia, including the threat from abroad, is strengthening and we cannot but react to this fact,” he said on state Rossiya television. “We should take into account not only the danger which comes from the so-called humans who carry out terrorist acts, but also the danger from their allies, inspirers and financiers outside Russia.”
Under slate grey skies and drizzle, 25-year-old engineer Alexei Bochkov was buried in Moscow’s vast Kuzmenskoye cemetery as 200 mourners holding carnations stood in eerie silence.