MOSCOW – Russia counted its rising toll of dead Saturday and steeled itself for new terrorist blows in its eleven-year war with Chechnya, after special forces brought a sudden end to the three-day hostage standoff at a Moscow theater.
The assault came after the release of a disabling gas inside the theater building, just as Chechen rebel assailants began killing hostages at dawn on Saturday, as they had earlier threatened.
The operation left Russians with feelings of both pain and pride -- more than 90 hostages were dead, but 750 others were rescued and dozens of their captors killed.
Russia "cannot be forced to its knees," President Vladimir Putin declared afterward on national television, but acknowledged the heavy cost to victims' families. "We could not save everyone. Forgive us," he said.
No children or foreign hostages were killed during the crisis, officials said.
The key targets for the unidentified "sleeping" gas were almost 20 suicide attackers, Chechen women, who sat among the hostages wrapped in explosives, officials said. Had the attackers detonated the charges, the toll of innocents would have been much higher, Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Vasilyev said.
Besides 50 Chechen assailants reported killed at the theater -- some with an apparent execution-style bullet to the head -- officials said three other gunmen were captured, and authorities searched the city for accomplices and gunmen who may have escaped.
The precision hostage-taking operation that began Wednesday night in the Russian capital defied the Kremlin's repeated contention that the nationalist rebels in predominantly Muslim Chechnya were on the verge of final defeat.
A Federal Security Service official said the well-armed theater raiders had foreign links and contacts with unspecified embassies in Moscow, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported, raising the prospect of insurgents backed by international terrorists plotting other violence in Russia.
"We can't have any euphoria," Vladimir Lukin, the deputy Parliament speaker, said after the raid. "I don't think we have broken their will."
Most surviving hostages, staggering or unconscious from the gas, were kept from family members who gathered in freezing rain outside a hospital, and their conditions were not reported.
But the death toll rose as the day stretched on.
Police officials said hours after the raid that 67 hostages were killed, but the Health Ministry later said the number had risen above 90.
How they died was not immediately clarified.
Vasilyev, the deputy interior minister, said none of the 67 initial victims died from gas poisoning. Nine died due to heart problems, shock or lack of medicine, he said. At the same time, doctors at City Hospital No. 13, where more than 320 freed hostages were taken, said none of those hospitalized had gunshot wounds, according to Moscow's TVS television.
The end came 58 hours after the gunmen stormed into the crowded theater during a performance of the popular musical Nord-Ost, vowing to die for Chechnya's independence and threatening to kill their captives unless Moscow withdrew its troops from the war-ravaged region.
The special forces' assault began in icy rain when the gunmen began executing hostages before dawn Saturday, Vasilyev said.
"About 5:15 a.m. there was shooting," he told reporters at the scene, three miles southeast of the Kremlin. "There was a real threat. Therefore the operation was undertaken."
Olga Chernyak, an Interfax news agency reporter caught in the hostage audience, said the gunmen killed a woman and a man "before our eyes."
"They shot the man in the eye; there was a lot of blood," Interfax quoted her as saying from her hospital bed. She said she lost consciousness soon after, apparently because of the gas.
The incapacitating agent apparently seeped into the theater through the ventilation system, TVS said, and then soldiers from the Alpha anti-terrorist squad burst in. Television footage showed them kicking in glass doors and opening fire, the thunder of their assault rifles setting off car alarms in the theater parking lot.
The hostages were soon brought out, some in the arms of soldiers, and most of them were loaded unconscious onto city buses.
Government film of the aftermath showed dead female hostage-takers sitting in red plush theater seats, in black robes and veils, heads thrown back or bent over, indicating they may have been shot while unconscious. Precisely placed bullet holes could be seen in their heads. One had a gas mask on her face.
The TV footage showed the camouflage-clad body of the assailants' leader, Movsar Barayev, lying on his back amid blood and broken glass.
A cognac bottle could be seen near Barayev's lifeless hand, and syringes were scattered in the litter surrounding the corpses of other gunmen, their faces masked by blood. Vasilyev said puncture marks, possibly from drug injections, were found on some gunmen's bodies.
Besides the women's explosives, the attackers had rigged other bombs throughout the hall, officials said.
"The use of special means" -- the gas -- "allowed the neutralization of the female terrorists who were wrapped in explosives and kept their fingers on the trigger," Vasilyev said.
Because only one Alpha trooper was reported wounded, some analysts believed the gas, which officials would not identify, had so incapacitated or disoriented the gunmen that they couldn't pull the triggers on their guns.
"They couldn't feel it, because such gas has no smell," Lev Fyodorov, a scientist who once worked on Soviet chemical weapons, said on Russian television.
An emergency worker who entered the hall behind the commandos said everyone he saw was slumped in their seats, unconscious.
"First we thought that they were dead, then we checked them and found that most were alive," said Vadim Mikhailov. "Inside there was a sweltering heat and the odor of human excrement. People were in shock, starved and incapacitated."
Despite the death toll, the hostage journalist Chernyak said the operation was necessary. "We were all waiting to die. We understood that they would not let us out alive," she said.
On Friday, reports said the hostage-takers had agreed to release their 71 foreign captives. That didn't happen, but 19 people were freed, including eight children.
On Friday afternoon, a theater worker telephoned out word that the Chechens had vowed to begin "executions" at dawn Saturday. Later Friday, mediator Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist respected by the Chechen separatists, said the gunmen demanded that Putin declare an end to the war in their region and begin withdrawing troops, in exchange for the hostages' lives.
But the only thing authorities guaranteed, as far as known, was that the hostage-takers' lives would be spared if they released their captives.
Three people were known to have been killed before the special forces assault began: a young woman whose body was brought out Thursday and the two killed Saturday morning. No foreign hostages were among the dead, officials and diplomats said.
Other governments praised the Russian handling of the crisis, but Moscow heard new calls, too, for a political solution to the separatist conflict in Chechnya.
Speaking for the European Union, Denmark's prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said the EU "commends the Russian government for exercising all possible restraint in this extremely difficult situation."
But German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer tempered such congratulations with a call for negotiations in Chechnya, where war has raged on and off since 1994.
"A political solution is needed more urgently than ever," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.