| Toxicologist Thomas Zilker holds a bottle of halothane, a gas used as an anaesthetic, in his Munich laboratory. Tests on samples from two German hostages showed traces of the gas. (AFP)
Moscow, Oct. 30 (Reuters): The gas used to end the Moscow theatre siege was based on the powerful opiate fentanyl, Russian health minister Yuri Shevchenko said today, ending a four-day mystery.
Special forces pumped the highly addictive painkiller into the theatre, where more than 800 hostages were being held by 50 Chechen separatists, before storming it early on Saturday. Authorities said they were forced to use the gas to knock out the rebels, demanding Russian troops quit their southern homeland. The rebels had threatened to blow up the theatre should the security forces storm it.
Russia has since come under heavy international pressure to identify the active agent in the gas, which was responsible for the deaths of all but two of the 119 hostages who died in the siege. Most died of respiratory and heart failure.
“To neutralise the terrorists a substance based on Fentanyl derivatives was used,” Shevchenko said in comments broadcast on Russian television. “On their own, these substances cannot lead to a fatal outcome. However, in this case the anaesthetic was given to people whose organisms, from a medical point of view, were in a critical condition as a result of a range of extremely aggressive factors,” he said.
He refuted earlier speculation that the special forces had used chemicals in the gas, possibly BZ, a nerve agent developed during the Cold War.
“I officially declare: chemical substances which might have fallen under the jurisdiction of the international convention on banning chemical weapons were not used during the special operation,” he added.
Foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said the use of the gas was “fully in accordance with Russia’s international obligations and the convention on chemical weapons and Russian law”. Fentanyl is a potent-opium based narcotic, which works on the brain’s pain receptors. The drug works quickly and is used both for general anaesthesia and light sedation, as well as in treating cancer patients.
However, it is also highly addictive and, like morphine, is sold as a street drug.
While it is one of the safer drugs used in anaesthetics it can, if taken in high enough doses, cause respiratory difficulties and death.