MOSCOW - President Vladimir V. Putin said yesterday that he is granting the Russian military expanded powers to fight terrorism and is prepared to follow in the footsteps of the United States by striking at threats beyond its borders.
Putin's remarks to his Cabinet came as Russians soberly reassessed the raid led by counterterrorism troops Saturday to free hundreds of hostages held by Chechen guerrillas in a Moscow theater. Officials acknowledged that all but one of the 117 hostages killed in the raid died from the effects of a debilitating gas pumped into the theater.
Authorities have declined to identify the gas, withholding the information even from doctors treating freed hostages.
Putin ignored the controversy over the gas, instead warning of what he described as the escalating threat of global terrorism.
"International terrorism is becoming more impudent, acting more cruelly," Putin said at a televised Cabinet meeting. "Here and there around the world, threats from terrorists of the use of means comparable to weapons of mass destruction are heard.
"If anyone even tries to use such means in relation to our country, Russia will answer with measures adequate to the threat to the Russian Federation - in all places where the terrorists, the organizers of these crimes, or their ideological or financial sponsors are located. I emphasize: wherever they may be."
The Kremlin has already threatened to expand the war against rebels in Chechnya, which is part of Russia, into the independent nation of Georgia. Georgia's Pankisi Valley has in the past been used by several hundred Chechen fighters as a base. American officials say fighters linked to al-Qaida have also operated in the valley.
The Kremlin's militant mood yesterday ended any hopes that the hostage crisis might lead officials to reconsider their policy of seeking to wipe out Chechen rebels. In the second conflict in Chechnya in a decade, Russia's 3-year-old war in Chechnya has claimed about 80,000 lives, including those of 4,500 Russians.
Many Russians seemed yesterday to accept the Kremlin's decision to use a gas to incapacitate the guerrillas in the theater, where more than 750 hostages were held for three days. But criticism of the government's failure to provide critical medical treatment to the hostages was growing. And there was anger that authorities declined to identity the gas, making it hard for doctors to treat the victims.
"I am afraid that military toxicologists will have the deaths of hostages on their consciences," Lev Fyodorov, an expert on chemical warfare, told the newspaper Moscow Komsomolets. "Before hostages were evacuated from the center, rescuers should have injected everyone with an antidote."
The newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda reported that the decision to use a chemical agent to knock out the terrorists was made Thursday, when the Federal Security Service decided the captors would never surrender. The FSB decided to use a gas nicknamed Kolokol-1, or Bell One.
"This heavy gas spreads quickly," the paper reported. "It influences people within one to three seconds, cutting off their consciousness for the period from two up to six hours, depending on people's state of health. For people with bad cardiovascular systems and for those with high vomiting reflexes, a lethal outcome is possible."
Dr. Viktor Fominykh, chief physician at the presidential medical center in Moscow, denied that "war gases" were used to end the crisis. "The gas that the crack unit used in that special operation has a general narcotic effect and is used during major surgeries," he told ITAR-TASS. But he did not identify it further.
"Judging by its effect, it could not have been any of the gases used in medical practice," Dr. Alexander Krylov, an anesthesiologist told Russian reporters. "Neither nitrous oxide nor chloroform can produce quick effects when dispersed in big premises."
Dr. Roger A. Johns, chairman of anesthesiology and critical care medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital, said he had never heard of the agent named by the newspaper. But he said the gas' rapid effect on the hostages could be consistent with the use of a regular general anesthetic in high enough concentrations.
Without skilled medical personnel at the scene to provide the kind of life support routinely present in operating rooms, it "could have devastating effects," Johns said.
"In the absence of someone there providing support, providing ventilation, these agents, if breathed in ... can depress the cardiovascular system. They can cause the airway to obstruct, making it difficult to provide oxygen to the brain and other organs," he said.
Dehydration from a lack of food and water would have made the hostages more vulnerable, he said. An anesthetic "would dilate the blood vessels and decrease the force of the contraction of the heart, and in the absence of the usual volume [of blood because of dehydration], it may lead to cardiovascular collapse."
People who were overweight or who suffered from cardiovascular disease would have been especially vulnerable, he said.
American officials said yesterday that they suspect the Russian security police might have used an aerosol version of a powerful, fast-acting opiate called Fentanyl, The New York Times reported.
Senior American authorities and private experts said the agent used by the Russians was probably similar to one of a small arsenal of nonlethal weapons that the United States is quietly studying for use by soldiers and police officers against terrorists. Several scientists said the United States had conducted research on Fentanyl, a well-known drug with many medical applications, as a human incapacitant for nearly a decade.
One former intelligence official theorized that the agent was developed by the Soviet Union's chemical and biological warfare program. He said Soviet scientists worked hard on "bio-regulators," agents that could alter mass behavior, and even put entire cities to sleep.
A Western intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the FSB briefed foreign counterterror experts after the building was stormed. The FSB official in charge of the briefing said he didn't know the name of the chemical, the official said.
The same Western official said that in consultations last week, Russian officials said they calculated that a raid on the building might cause up to 300 casualties among the hostages. As long as about 400 survived, an FSB official said, the raid would be justified. "On the one hand, it's logical," the Western official said. "But it's not the way we Westerners would think about it."
The newspaper Izvestia reported last night that a Moscow police officer has been detained and accused of helping the hostage-takers. The officer, the paper said, spoke to the Chechens by mobile phone during the siege, tipping them off to what was going on outside.
Yesterday was a day of mourning for the hostages who died. Schools in Moscow opened with a moment of silence. Mourners streamed to a lawn by the theater's driveway to lay flowers, candles and teddy bears. More than 200 city residents donated blood for the hostages, even though authorities said only three of those hospitalized suffered from gunshot wounds.
About 800 people were in the theater when it was seized by about 50 Chechen gunmen during Wednesday night's performance of the Russian musical Nord-Ost. The guerrillas, including 18 women, demanded that Russia end its war against Chechen insurgents.
The Moscow Health Department said 405 former hostages, including nine children, remained hospitalized yesterday; 239 had been released. At least 45 remained in grave condition, Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matviyenko said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy said that at least one American was among the dead. New reports identified the American as Sandy Booker, 49, of Oklahoma City, Okla. Booker was believed to have been in Moscow attempting to get a U.S. visa for his fiancee, a woman from Kazakhstan. The dead also included two foreign women, one Dutch and one Austrian.
Russian officials said they staged the raid only after the guerillas started executing hostages, as the guerrillas had threatened. But survivors among the hostages said it was relatively peaceful when the assault started.
The leader of the guerrillas, Movsar Barayev, was shot to death. On Thursday, he had told a British reporter that the hostage-taking had been jointly planned by the separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov and another Chechen rebel commander, Shamil Basayev. During the hostage crisis, spokesmen for Maskhadov said the Chechen leader had no advance knowledge of the theater takeover.
"Maskhadov, the single rational politician with whom it was possible to negotiate, was shown by the Kremlin as the leader who initiated this terrorist attack," says Nikolai Petrov, head of the Center for Political-Geographic Research at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "His legitimacy, his image was ruined as a result of this attack."
Liberals are concerned that authorities will use the hostage-taking to justify a crackdown on civil liberties. "Moscow has every chance of turning into a huge military barracks," said Djemal Oukhan, chief political writer for Novaya Gazeta.
Authorities in Moscow announced that they would enforce registration and visa requirements on immigrants more strictly. A survey taken Thursday by the Public Opinion Foundation found that one-quarter of Muscovites want people from the Caucasus region expelled from the capital. Immigrants - especially darker-skinned people - are harassed by police.
Authorities turned some of their anger outward. Kremlin officials angrily denounced peace overtures made yesterday at the World Chechen Congress in Denmark. Putin canceled a trip to Denmark in protest, and a Nov. 11 summit of the European Union was switched from Copenhagen to Brussels, Belgium, to avoid a Russian boycott.
Petrov, of the political research center, said the guerrillas may have wanted to stop tentative steps toward peace talks. If so, they succeeded. Now, he said, "it will take some time to come back to the understanding that there is no military way out of the Chechnya situation."
While the hostage crisis may have strengthened support for Putin's war, it did little for Putin himself, analysts said.
"It didn't strengthen him at all," Petrov said. "Now, three years after he has started this counterterrorism operation in Chechnya, even here in the heart of Russia, in Moscow, we are less safe than they we used to be. The war is going on here. It's not far away. It's not just some kind of foreign colonial war, which can be seen on television screens."
Oukhan, of Novaya Gazeta, agreed. "Putin has won a tactical success," he said. "He now has straw to add to the bonfire of the war. He has the chance to cut off all possible negotiations which have been going on in Europe. But he hasn't solved the problem in general."
Staff writer Frank Roylance contributed to this article.