PHOENIX – President Bush's spokesman declined Sunday to criticize Russian special forces for pumping a mysterious gas into a theater to end a hostage siege, rescuing 750 people but killing 116 others.
"The Russian government and the Russian people are victims of this tragedy, and the tragedy was caused as a result of the terrorists who took hostages and booby-trapped the building and created dire circumstances," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, adding that the White House does not know all the facts.
He did not endorse the tactic of using the gas in remarks to reporters as Bush flew from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico to Phoenix. But he made plain the administration's view that blame for the deaths lay with the captors.
Asked directly about the use of the knockout gas, Fleischer wouldn't say whether the administration believed it was appropriate. "We don't know what all the facts are," he said.
But, he said, "Given the fact that the terrorists were clearly serious and had already killed people, and apparently had the theater booby-trapped so all would die, it's important to know what the full circumstances are before venturing further."
Bush, he said, "abhors the loss of all life. This is a reminder of the tragedy that can unfold when terrorists attack."
Bush had not spoken to Russian President Vladimir Putin as of Sunday evening, he said.
The measured White House reaction comes as Bush seeks Russia's support for a tough resolution in the United Nations on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
In Moscow, a U.S. consular officer visited an American survivor of the theater hostage crisis, a State Department official said.
The identity of the female patient was not released for privacy reasons, the official said. Although she was hospitalized, the official said she was not injured.
"We are still continuing to determine the whereabouts of possibly one or two other Americans," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Russian special forces troopers ended the 2-day takeover before dawn Saturday with a raid on the theater shortly before the hostage-takers, rebels from Russia's embattled Chechnya region, had threatened to begin killing their more than 850 captives. Russian officials reported 750 were rescued, many wounded.
The rebels killed one hostage early in the takeover. The Russian news agency Interfax reported Sunday that Moscow's chief physician, Andrei Seltsovsky, said all but one of the 117 captives killed Saturday were victims of a knockout gas pumped through the building before the soldiers came in. About 50 of the Chechen hostage-takers died in the military action, some shot in the head as they lay apparently incapacitated by the gas.