MOSCOW (AP) – Doctors said yesterday they still hadn’t been told exactly what was in a mysterious knockout gas that killed 116 hostages after Russian special forces stormed a Moscow theater to free them from Chechen terrorists.

The chief Moscow city doctor says more than 150 hostages remained in critical condition after the operation, which at first had been seen as a triumphant rescue mission.

The physician in charge of the city’s poison unit said troops did not tell medical authorities they had gassed the auditorium until the 750 hostages were brought out, most of them unconscious.

“But we didn’t know the character of the gas,” said Yevgeny Luzhnikov, head of the city health service Department of Severe Poisoning. The substance was described as akin to compounds used in surgical anesthesia.

Andrei Seltsovsky, the chief city physician, explained that the gas affected hearts and lungs. He said he had no information when asked about reports that the compound could cause vomiting that would choke unconscious victims.

“In standard situations, the compound … does not act as aggressively as it turned out to do,” Seltsovsky said. “But it was used on people who were in a specific (extreme) situation for more than 50 hours. … All of this naturally made the situation more difficult.”

The approximately 800 hostages were taken Wednesday night when an estimated 50 Chechen rebels stormed the theater during a popular musical. They demanded that Russia end its war in Chechnya.

The few dozen hostages who were well enough to be released yesterday could provide few clues as to the nature of the gas.

“We knew something serious was going to happen” when the gas started seeping into the hot auditorium that reeked of excrement, said Mark Podlesny as he walked out of Veterans Hospital No. 1 near the theater.

“I lost consciousness. Yes, there was a strange smell,” said Roma Shmakov, a 12-year-old actor in “Nord-Ost,” the musical in progress when the gunmen burst in at 9:10 p.m. Wednesday.

The gas mystery tainted the rescue mission, overlaying it with an aura of confusion and callousness. The impression was bolstered by scenes outside hospitals where the hostages were taken for treatment. Friends and family crowded the gates in futile efforts to learn if relatives or loved ones were inside. Authorities gave out little information on hostages’ identities, what hospital they were in or how they had fared through the ordeal.

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