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Fifteen years after Moscow theatre siege, questions still remain 

This week marks the 15th anniversary of the Moscow Dubrovka theatre siege, where hundreds of people died during rescue operations after a group of terrorists stormed a theatre and took more than 900 people hostage. Lina Kolesnikova says many questions remain unanswered.


Representatives of the Red Cross organisation entering the the theatre in October 2002, hoping to talk to the terrorists who were holding some 900 people hostage (image: Anton Denisov/REX/Shutterstock)

October 23, 2017, was the 15th anniversary of the Moscow Dubrovka theatre siege, the largest terrorist attack to take place in Russia’s capital city. This mass hostage-taking was also the third in Russian history (the first took place in Budenovsk, 1995; the second in Kizlyar, 1996 and the third in Beslan in 2004).

On 23 October 2002, 40 Chechen militants, led by Movsar Barayev, took more than 900 hostages at the Dubrovka Theatre Center in Moscow, where the popular musical Nord-Ost was showing. Three days later, fearing for the hostages’ lives, Russian Special Forces assaulted the building.

There are still many questions about this incident, particularly about the assault operation and subsequent rescue activities. Even the number of hostages who died remains unclear; the Russian authorities insist the final toll was 130, but the NGO Nord Ost (Regional Social Organisation Organisation for Assistance and Defence of the Victims of Terrorist Acts) says the figure is closer to 174.

Russian authorities have still not named the gas that was used during the assault, though it is assumed this was fentanyl. Generally speaking, neutralisation of the terrorists was very successful. However, it is still unclear why information about the gas used during the rescue was not conveyed to rescue and medical personnel. While the Special Forces created safe conditions for the evacuation of hostages, information on the actual impact of the gas did not reach the rescue services in time (nor did it reach hospitals afterwards).

Knowing this, we can now understand why the selection of hospitals was so strange, when victims were often transported to the hospitals that were sometimes not capable of helping. Also, the involvement of specialised institutions and hospitals was minimal and the rationale behind this is difficult to explain. One possible explanation could be that many drivers from other districts and neighbouring towns who were called upon to respond were unfamiliar with Moscow’s transportation infrastructure routes. This, and the lack of knowledge about the actual impact of the gas on the hostages, meant that priority was given to the nearest hospitals and that pre-hospitalisation treatment was therefore inadequate.

For victims affected by fentanyl, the correct evacuation, transportation and body position (lateral recumbent position) are essential. We could say, therefore, that the high death toll among the victims was directly connected to: poorly managed triage (owing to lack of information) and the dispatch and transport of the majority of victims to non-specialised hospitals by rescue and ambulance brigades who had not been given sufficient information.

Officials stated afterwards that 40 terrorists were killed in at the theatre and 19 of these were women (some of them were teenage girls). As is known today, some of the terrorists were part of the audience from the very beginning of the show, while others arrived during the second act. Meanwhile, some hostages and journalists insisted that there were more than 40 terrorists at the centre and some of them escaped.

Lina Kolesnikova is a Member of CRJ’s Editorial Advisory Panel and a Consultant with CRJ’s parent consultancy, Crisis Management Limited. She has carried out extensive work on mass hostage events, hostage rescue and kidnapping. If you would like to know more, please, contact CRJ. For a full list of Lina’s articles on this subject, click here. Read Lina's article on learning from mass hostage events, published in CRJ 2:2 (2006)

Lina Kolesnikova, 27/10/2017
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