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Putin says gunmen who attacked Moscow concert hall tried to escape to Ukraine

Investigators from the Investigative Committee of Russia examine the burned concert hall (Investigative Committee of Russia/AP)
Investigators from the Investigative Committee of Russia examine the burned concert hall (Investigative Committee of Russia/AP)

Russian authorities arrested the four men suspected of carrying out the attack on a suburban Moscow concert hall that killed at least 133 people, President Vladimir Putin said on Saturday during an address to the nation.

He claimed they were captured while fleeing to Ukraine.

Kyiv strongly denied any involvement in Friday’s attack on the Crocus City Hall music venue in Krasnogorsk and so-called Islamic State’s Afghanistan affiliate claimed responsibility.

Mr Putin did not mention IS in his speech, and Kyiv accused him and other Russian politicians of falsely linking Ukraine to the assault in order to stoke anger over Russia’s war in Ukraine, which recently entered its third year.

US intelligence officials confirmed the claim by the IS affiliate.

“Isis bears sole responsibility for this attack. There was no Ukrainian involvement whatsoever,” National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said in a statement.

US intelligence agencies gathered information in recent weeks that the IS branch was planning an attack in Moscow, and US officials privately shared the intelligence with Russian officials earlier this month, the US official said.

Mr Putin said authorities have detained 11 people over the attack, which also injured more than 100 concertgoers and left the venue on Moscow’s western rim a smouldering ruin.

He called it “a bloody, barbaric terrorist act” and said Russian authorities captured the four suspected gunmen as they were trying to escape to Ukraine through a “window” prepared for them on the Ukrainian side of the border.

Concert hall on fire
The hall was set on fire after the shooting (AP)

Russian media broadcast videos that apparently showed the detention and interrogation of the suspects, including one who told the cameras he was approached by an unidentified assistant to an Islamic preacher via a messaging app channel and paid to take part in the raid.

Russian news reports identified the gunmen as citizens of Tajikistan, a former Soviet country in Central Asia that is predominantly Muslim and borders Afghanistan.

Up to 1.5 million Tajiks have worked in Russia and many have Russian citizenship.

Officials in Tajikistan, who denied initial Russian media reports that mentioned several other Tajiks allegedly involved in the raid, did not comment on Saturday’s arrest of the four suspected gunmen.

Many Russian hardliners called for a crackdown on Tajik migrants, but Mr Putin appeared to reject the idea, saying “no force will be able to sow the poisonous seeds of discord, panic or disunity in our multi-ethnic society”.

Concert hall gunmen
Screengrab from footage of gunmen shooting in a concert hall in Krasnogorsk (Astra via AP)

He declared Sunday a day of mourning and said that additional security measures have been imposed throughout Russia

The attack, the deadliest in Russia in years, is a major embarrassment to the Russian leader and happened just days after he cemented his grip on the country for another six years in a vote that followed the harshest crackdown on dissent since Soviet times.

Some commentators on Russian social media questioned how authorities, who have relentlessly suppressed any opposition activities and muzzled independent media, failed to prevent the attack despite the US warnings.

The attack came two weeks after the US embassy in Moscow issued a notice urging Americans to avoid crowded places in view of “imminent” plans by extremists to target large Moscow gatherings, including concerts.

Several other western embassies repeated the warning. Earlier this week, Mr Putin denounced the warning as an attempt to intimidate Russians.

Investigators on Saturday were combing through the charred wreckage of the hall for more victims, and authorities said the death toll could still rise.

Hundreds of people stood in line in Moscow early Saturday to donate blood and plasma, Russia’s health ministry said.

Mr Putin’s claim that the attackers tried to flee to Ukraine followed comments by Russian lawmakers who pointed the finger at Ukraine immediately after the attack.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky angrily rejected Moscow’s accusations as an attempt by Mr Putin and his lieutenants to shift the blame to Ukraine while treating their own people as “expendables”.

“They are burning our cities and they are trying to blame Ukraine,” he said in a statement on his messaging app channel.

“They torture and rape our people and they blame them. They drove hundreds of thousands of their terrorists here to fight us on our Ukrainian soil, and they don’t care what happens inside their own country.”

Russia Shooting
The burnt Crocus City Hall (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

Ukraine’s foreign ministry accused Moscow of using the attack to try to stoke feelings over its war efforts.

“We consider such accusations to be a planned provocation by the Kremlin to further fuel anti-Ukrainian hysteria in Russian society, create conditions for increased mobilisation of Russian citizens to participate in the criminal aggression against our country and discredit Ukraine in the eyes of the international community,” the ministry said in a statement.

Images shared by Russian state media on Saturday showed emergency vehicles still gathered outside the ruins of Crocus City Hall, which could hold more than 6,000 people and has hosted many big events, including the 2013 Miss Universe beauty pageant that featured former US president Donald Trump.

On Friday, crowds were at the venue for a concert by the Russian rock band Picnic.

Videos posted online showed gunmen in the venue shooting civilians at point-blank range.

Russian news reports cited authorities and witnesses as saying the attackers threw explosive devices that started the fire, which eventually consumed the building and caused its roof to collapse.

Dave Primov, who survived the attack, told the AP that the gunmen were “shooting directly into the crowd of people who were in the front rows”.

He described the chaos in the hall as concertgoers rushed to leave the building: “People began to panic, started to run and collided with each other. Some fell down and others trampled on them.”

After he and others crawled out of the hall into nearby utility rooms, he said he heard pops from small explosives and smelled burning as the attackers set the building ablaze.

By the time they got out of the massive building 25 minutes later, it was engulfed in flames.

Russia Shooting
People placing flowers next to the Crocus City Hall (AP)

“Had it been just a little longer, we could simply get stuck there in the fire,” Mr Primov said.

Messages of outrage, shock and support for the victims and their families have streamed in from around the world.

On Friday, the UN Security Council condemned “the heinous and cowardly terrorist attack” and underlined the need for the perpetrators to be held accountable.

UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres also condemned the terrorist attack “in the strongest possible terms”, his spokesman said.

IS, which lost much of its ground after Russia’s military action in Syria, has long targeted Russia.

In a statement posted by the group’s Aamaq news agency, IS’s Afghanistan affiliate said it had attacked a large gathering of “Christians” in Krasnogorsk.

On Saturday, the group issued a new statement on Aamaq saying the attack was carried out by four men who used automatic rifles, a pistol, knives and firebombs in the attack.

It said that attackers fired at the crowd and also used knives to kill some concertgoers, casting the raid as part of IS’s ongoing war with countries that it says are fighting Islam.

In October 2015, a bomb planted by IS downed a Russian passenger plane over Sinai, killing all 224 people on board, most of them Russian holidaymakers returning from Egypt.

The group, which operates mainly in Syria and Iraq but also in Afghanistan and Africa, also has claimed several attacks in Russia’s volatile Caucasus and other regions in the past years.

It recruited fighters from Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union.

On March 7, just hours before the US embassy warned about imminent attacks, Russia’s top security agency said it had thwarted an attack on a synagogue in Moscow by an IS cell, killing several of its members in the Kaluga region near the Russian capital.

A few days before that, Russian authorities said six alleged IS members were killed in a shootout in Ingushetia, in Russia’s Caucasus region.