President Bush fervently defended Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday for using opiate gas to end the siege at a Moscow theater, and equated the hostage-takers with the Pentagon and World Trade Center attackers.

The gas, which the Russian government at first refused to identify, killed at least 123 of the captives. Among those who died in the raid was an electrician from Oklahoma.

Bush called Putin a "good friend" in the fight against terrorism, and praised him for the "very tough decisions" he made during the standoff in late October.

"People tried to blame Vladimir," Bush told European reporters on the eve of a five-day trip to a NATO summit and then to Russia, where he will meet with Putin. "They ought to blame the terrorists. They're the ones who caused the situation, not President Putin."

Rebels demanding an end to the war in Chechnya held more than 800 people hostage for 58 hours. Commandos killed most of the guerrillas but also scores of hostages when the gas was pumped into the theater's ventilation system. The gas probably was an aerosol form of carfentanil, normally used to sedate big-game animals.

The Bush administration was reluctant to criticize Putin after the siege, while seeking his support for a U.N. Security Council resolution ordering Iraq to disarm. Russia voted for it and Bush continued his solidarity with Putin.

"Eight hundred people were going to lose their lives," Bush said. "These people were killers, just like the killers that came to America. There's a common thread -- that any time anybody is willing to take innocent life for a so-called cause, they must be dealt with."

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer made similar comments immediately after the siege. That was right before the Nov. 5 elections, and Bush was not taking questions from reporters. At the time, Fleischer said the United States did not know what type of gas had been used.

Bush told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that Russia "should be able to solve their issue with Chechnya peacefully."

"That's not to say that Vladimir shouldn't do what it takes to protect his people from individual terrorist attacks," Bush said.

The president told the European reporters that the renewed inspections were "not a free pass for Saddam [Hussein]" but a mandate to disarm. "If he doesn't, then we, of course, will consult, like we said we would do -- we'd hold a meeting," Bush said.

The United States would use the talks to enlist other nations in enforcing the resolution, likely by military force. Putin, while supporting the return of inspectors, has publicly opposed an attack on Iraq. Bush said the unanimous Security Council vote puts the word out that "we intend to enforce the serious consequences if there's not disarmament; and that we're able to work with our friends."

In a move that Bush aides said was designed to underscore support for a free press in Russia, Bush also gave an interview yesterday to NTV, an independent network.