Human rights group Amnesty International wants to know the contents of the gas used to end the Moscow theatre siege. Dr. Andrei Seltsovsky describes it as a general anaesthetic. He hasn’t named it, and referred to it in a press conference only as "the substance." Vil Mirzayanov, a former Soviet chemical weapons expert, says the gas is a derivative of BZ, a chemical weapon manufactured by both the Russians and U.S. during the Cold War. It causes disorientation and hallucinations and was tested by on U.S. soldiers in the 1960s.

But according to Christopher Holstege of the University of Virginia, BZ takes an hour to start working and its effects peak at eight hours, while the Russian gas worked in seconds. However, reports that the victims are pale and weak, with memory loss, and that doctors are treating them with the drug physostigmine, suggest that the gas is similar to BZ. This means the Russians have been working on the gas and improving it since the 1950s, despite signing an agreement not to.

These nerve agents block some receptors for a specific neurotransmitter, causing a higher heart rate and lack of sweating, among other symptoms. They also cross the blood-brain barrier and block similar receptors in the brain, causing unconsciousness or disorientation, hallucinations and blocked memory formation. The use of physostigmine as a treatment would not be used with other nerve gases, such as sarin. At first, affected hostages were not allowed to leave the hospital and relatives weren’t allowed to visit them, in order to prevent blood samples being taken that would reveal the identity of the gas. Some witnesses say the green, caustic gas seeped through a specially-drilled hole in the wall. Others say it was pumped through the theatre’s ventilation system, while still others say it came from beneath the stage. The people inside realized what was happening. "They are gassing us!" a female hostage screamed, in a live radio interview being broadcast (presumably by cellphone) as the operation unfolded.

"A panic went up among us and people were screaming, ‘Gas! gas!’ and, yes, there was shooting," says theatre director Georgy Vasilyev. "When the shooting began, (the rebels) told us to lean forward in the theatre seats and cover our heads behind the seats. But then everyone fell asleep. And (the rebels) were sitting there with their heads thrown back and their mouths wide open." Other hostages who survived say they can?t remember anything except losing consciousness when the gassing began, then waking up later in the hospital.

Whatever it was, the gas killed more than 100 people, and questions are being asked about Russia’s compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the manufacture, stockpiling and use of such weapons. This is the treaty that recent events have revealed both Russia and the U.S. violated, by continuing to manufacture and stockpile weapons-grade anthrax. Now it looks as if the Russians not only failed to destroy their supplies of BZ, they even improved it. This is something to think about, as we are about to declare war on Iraq for making chemical and biological weapons.

There’s a good reason for keeping our chemical weapons while Iraq still has theirs, but should we pretend we’ve destroyed them when we haven’t? This kind of secrecy undermines our world credibility. Another example of unnecessary secrecy is the classified search for zero point energy, that we can use to launch our own flying saucers. Nick Cook tells all about it in "The Hunt for Zero Point," click here.

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