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Russia mourns as toll from concert hall massacre climbs to 137

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Russia observed a national day of mourning on Sunday after a massacre in a Moscow concert hall killed 137 people, the deadliest attack in Europe to have been claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has vowed to punish those behind the “barbaric terrorist attack”, saying four gunmen trying to flee to Ukraine had been arrested.

Kyiv has strongly denied any connection, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accusing Putin of trying to shift the blame onto them.

Putin, in his first public remarks on the attack, made no reference to a statement by IS claiming responsibility.

At least 133 people were killed when camouflaged gunmen stormed the Crocus City Hall, in Moscow’s northern suburb of Krasnogorsk, and then set fire to the building on Friday evening.

The Islamic State group wrote on Telegram on Saturday that the attack was “carried out by four IS fighters armed with machine guns, a pistol, knives and firebombs,” as part of “the raging war” with “countries fighting Islam”.

It is the deadliest attack in Russia for almost two decades.

Russian officials expect the death toll to rise further, with more than 100 wounded in hospital.

Russia’s Investigative Committee, which probes major crimes, said rescue workers were still pulling bodies from the burnt-out building on Saturday.

The emergency situations ministry has so far named 29 of the victims, the blaze having complicated the process of identification.

The ministry posted a video on Sunday of heavy equipment arriving at the scene of the fire to dismantle damaged structures and clear debris.

Meanwhile, Pope Francis on Sunday condemned the shooting attack as a “vile” act that offends God, saying his prayers were with the victims.

“I assure my prayers for the victims of the vile terrorist attack carried out in Moscow, may the Lord receive them in his peace, comfort their families and convert the hearts of those who […] carry out these inhuman actions that offend God,” the Pope said in St. Peter’s Square after the Palm Sunday mass.

‘Morally crushed’
On the streets of the capital on Sunday, there was shock and grief.

“It is a tragedy. I was morally crushed,” Ruslana Baranovskaya, 35, told AFP.

“People don’t smile […] everybody feels the loss,” said 73-year-old Valentina Karenina, a pensioner standing on a street off Red Square.

Museums, theatres and cinemas around the country closed and billboards were replaced with memorial posters.

Mourners continued to stream to the concert hall in northwest Moscow to lay flowers as a tribute to the victims.

More than 5,000 people donated blood following the attack, officials said, with many standing in long queues outside clinics.

Putin on Saturday vowed “retribution and oblivion” to the “terrorists, murderers and non-humans” who carried out the “barbaric terrorist attack”.

Several of his allies have called for the country to lift a moratorium on the death penalty, sparking concern among Kremlin critics.

“Terrorists, murderers, non-humans … have only one unenviable fate: retribution and oblivion,” Putin said in his televised address on Saturday.

Calling the attack a “barbaric, terrorist act”, he said “all four direct perpetrators … all those who shot and killed people, have been found and detained”.

Russian television showed security services interrogating four bloodied men, who spoke Russian with an accent, on a road in the western Bryansk region, which borders both Ukraine and Belarus.

“They tried to escape and were travelling towards Ukraine, where, according to preliminary data, a window was prepared for them on the Ukrainian side to cross the state border,” said Putin.

Zelensky, in his evening address on Saturday, dismissed the suggestion that Kyiv had been involved.

“What happened yesterday in Moscow is obvious,” he said. “Putin and the other scum are just trying to blame it on someone else.”

Russia has arrested 11 people in connection with the attack, the FSB security service said. Earlier, the agency had said the attackers had “contacts” in Ukraine, without elaborating.

Site search to continue
Putin declared Sunday a day of national mourning.

And he promised: “All the perpetrators, organisers and those who ordered this crime will be justly and inevitably punished.”

The Investigative Committee said the death toll had so far reached 133 and the governor of the Moscow region said rescuers would continue to scour the site for “several days”.

Some 107 people were still in hospital, many in a critical condition, Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova said.

IS had first claimed responsibility for the attack on Friday night, repeating its claim again on Saturday.

Some witnesses filmed the gunmen from the upper floors as they walked through the stalls shooting people, sharing the footage on social media.

Then “the terrorists used a flammable liquid to set fire to the concert hall’s premises, where spectators were located, including wounded,” the Investigative Committee said.

Investigators said people died both from gunshot wounds and smoke inhalation after a fire engulfed the 6,000-seater venue.

Investigators said a man who jumped on one of the gunmen as he was shooting at the concert-goers, “immobilising” him and thus “saving the lives of people around him” would receive an award.

Blood donation queues
Putin did not address IS’s claim of responsibility in his first public remarks Saturday, which came more than 18 hours after the start of the attack.

But in Washington, a statement from the White House condemning the attack described the group as a “common terrorist enemy that must be defeated everywhere”.

The head of the state-run RT media outlet, Margarita Simonyan, posted two videos of interrogations of two handcuffed suspects. They both admitted to the attack but did not say who had organised it.

The interior ministry said all four of the suspected gunmen were foreign nationals.

Russian Telegram channels — including those with links to the security services — said they were from Tajikistan, a country that borders Afghanistan.

Tajikistan’s foreign ministry told Russia’s TASS news agency it was in close contact with Moscow over the matter.

In Moscow, residents stood in long lines in the rain to donate blood for those hospitalised, and mourners came to lay flowers outside the concert hall.

Memorial posters featuring a single candle replaced some advertising billboards in the capital and major events were cancelled across the country.

US warning dismissed
Just three days earlier, Putin had publicly dismissed a US warning of an “imminent” attack in Moscow as propaganda designed to scare Russian citizens.

The US embassy in Russia had warned on March 7 that “extremists have imminent plans to target large gatherings in Moscow, to include concerts”, advising caution over the following 48 hours.

Washington said after the attack it had also shared details directly with Moscow.

But speaking to FSB chiefs last Tuesday, Putin had called it a “provocative” statement and “outright blackmail … to intimidate and destabilise our society”.


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