December 26, 2005

Mystery gas poisons dozens of Russian shoppers

ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - Russian police were
investigating a mystery gas smelling of garlic that hurt dozens
of shoppers when it was released into a supermarket on Monday
in the second city of St Petersburg.

Two other shops of the handyman store chain Maksidom were
evacuated at the height of the pre-New Year shopping period,
after rescue workers found two other suspicious canisters
fitted with timing devices.

A spokesman for the Emergencies Ministry said 78 people had
appealed for help after smelling the gas, and 66 had been
hospitalized. No one was severely hurt.

"There were devices made out of ampoules containing a
so-far unknown substance, which on dispersal gave out a strong
pungent smell like garlic," said a spokeswoman for the local
Federal Security Service, the successor of the Soviet-era KGB.

She said the service was struggling to identify the gas
released in the shop. Local media quoted prosecutors as saying
the gas was methyl mercaptan, a compound added to domestic gas
to give it its odor which is poisonous in large quantities.

"Suspicions containers with pipes were found in two other
shops, they are being defused," said Andrei Alyabyev, spokesman
for the Emergencies Ministry.

Threats and raids are frequent tactics in commercial
disputes between Russian businessmen, although it would be rare
for shoppers to be targeted.