Russia mourns victims of deadly concert-hall attack, Putin promises punishment

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Russian president lit a candle at a church at his residence outside Moscow on Sunday evening to honour those who died

MOSCOW:

Russia lowered flags to half-mast on Sunday for a day of mourning after scores of people were gunned down with automatic weapons at a rock concert outside Moscow in the deadliest attack inside Russia for two decades.

President Vladimir Putin declared a national day of mourning after pledging to track down and punish all those behind the attack on Friday evening, in which 137 people were killed, including three children, and 180 were injured.

Over 100 people remained in hospital, some of them in a serious condition. Putin lit a candle at a church at his residence outside Moscow on Sunday evening to honour those who died, his spokesman told the Interfax news agency.

“I express my deep, sincere condolences to all those who lost their loved ones,” Putin said in an address to the nation on Saturday. “The whole country and our entire people are grieving with you.”

Da’ish claimed responsibility for the attack, but Putin has not publicly mentioned the Islamist militant group in connection with the attackers, who he said had been trying to escape to Ukraine. He asserted that some on “the Ukrainian side” had been prepared to spirit the gunmen across the border.

Ukraine has denied any role in the attack.

People laid flowers at Crocus City Hall, the 6,200-seat concert hall outside Moscow where four armed men burst in just before Soviet-era rock group Picnic was to perform its hit “Afraid of Nothing”.

The men fired their automatic weapons in short bursts at terrified civilians who fell screaming in a hail of bullets.

It was the deadliest attack on Russian territory since the 2004 Beslan school siege, when Islamist militants took more than 1,000 people, including hundreds of children, hostage.

Long lines formed in Moscow to donate blood. Blood banks said on Sunday they now had enough blood supplies for four to six months.

Across Moscow, billboards carried a picture of a single candle, the date of the attack and the words “We mourn”. In other cities, people laid flowers.

Countries around the world have expressed horror at the attack and sent their condolences to the Russian people.

Gunmen

Putin said 11 people had been detained, including the four suspected gunmen, who fled the concert hall and made their way to the Bryansk region, about 340 km (210 miles) southwest of Moscow.

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

Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) said the gunmen had contacts in Ukraine and were captured near the border.

The suspects were taken to the Moscow headquarters of the Investigative Committee on Sunday ahead of an expected court appearance, although the timing of that was not yet known.

Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, triggering a major European war after eight years of conflict in eastern Ukraine between Ukrainian forces on one side and pro-Russian Ukrainians and Russian proxies on the other.

People gather at a makeshift memorial to the victims of a shooting attack set up outside the Crocus City Hall concert venue in the Moscow Region, Russia, March 24, 2024. PHOTO: REUTERS

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy accused Putin of seeking to divert blame for the concert hall attack by referring to Ukraine.

Da’ish, the Islamist group that once sought control over swathes of Iraq and Syria, claimed responsibility for the attack, the group’s Amaq agency said on Telegram. On Saturday night, Da’ish released on its Telegram channels what it said was footage of the attack.

In video footage published by Russian media and Telegram channels with close ties to the Kremlin, one of the suspects said he was offered money to carry out the attack.

“I shot people,” the suspect, his hands tied and his hair held by an interrogator, a black boot beneath his chin, said in poor and highly accented Russian.

When asked why, he said: “For money.” The man said he had been promised half a million roubles (a little over $5,000). One was shown answering questions through a Tajik translator. Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon spoke to Putin about the attack.

The White House said the US government shared information with Russia early this month about a planned attack in Moscow, and issued a public advisory to Americans in Russia on March 7. It said Da’ish bore sole responsibility for the attack.

“There was no Ukrainian involvement whatsoever,” US National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said.

Russian officials have bristled at the US public comments on the attack and say Russian investigators must be allowed to make their own findings.

The United States and other Western countries whose relations with Moscow have been fraught over the Ukraine war have also sent messages of condolence to the Russian people.

If the attack was the work of Da’ish, it was unclear why the group chose this moment to strike Russia. Putin changed the course of the Syrian civil war by intervening in 2015, supporting President Bashar al-Assad against the opposition and Da’ish.

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