Moscow terror attack: Putin says all four gunmen held as death toll reaches 133

Author: Editors Desk Source: The Guardian
March 23, 2024 at 23:13
Putin suggests – without evidence – that Kyiv may have been involved in attack, claiming attackers planned to flee to Ukraine

Putin tells Russians Ukraine linked to attack on Moscow concert hall without evidence – video

Vladimir Putin said Russia had arrested all four gunmen responsible for the shooting that killed 133 people at a concert hall on the outskirts of Moscow, claiming that the perpetrators of one of the worst terror attacks in the country’s history planned to flee to Ukraine.

In his first public comments on the terrorist attacks that shocked the nation, the Russian president made no mention of Islamic State’s claim to have carried out the attack.

Instead, Putin suggested without evidence that Ukraine may have been involved in Friday’s attack at the Crocus City Hall just outside Moscow, saying that “the Ukrainian side” had “prepared a window” for the terrorists to cross the border from Russia into Ukraine before they were apprehended.

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

Putin’s comments fell short of directly blaming Ukraine for the attack, as he said those responsible would be punished, “whoever they may be, whoever may have sent them”. The four suspected gunmen were all foreign citizens, Russia’s interior ministry later said. Putin said authorities detained a total of 11 people after the attack.

Islamic State, through an affiliated news agency, claimed responsibility for the attack late on Friday in a post on Telegram, in which the group claimed the gunmen had managed to escape afterwards. On Saturday, IS released a photo of what it said were the four attackers behind the shooting rampage.

In a statement, the group said the shooting came within the context of the “raging war” between Islamic State and countries fighting Islam.

Russian officials and state news channels have been quiet about Islamic State’s claim to have carried out the attack, but a US official said Washington had intelligence confirming it.

The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said it was typical of Putin and “other thugs” to seek to divert blame. Ukraine’s foreign ministry said in a statement that Russian officials were engaged in accusations against Kyiv “with the goals of stirring up anti-Ukrainian hysteria in Russian society and creating conditions to boost mobilisation of Russian citizens into the criminal aggression against our state”.

Some Russian officials also speculated that Ukraine, the country against which Russia launched a full-scale invasion two years ago, was responsible.

Alexey Chepa, the first deputy chair of the state duma committee on international affairs, said the “events were connected to Ukraine”.

The death toll from the attack had risen to 133 by Saturday afternoon, according to a statement from Russia’s investigative committee. Putin declared a day of mourning for Sunday and passed his condolences on to the families of those killed in the attack.

The fire-damaged Crocus City Hall. Photograph: Vitaly Smolnikov/AP
The fire-damaged Crocus City Hall. Photograph: Vitaly Smolnikov/AP

Russian authorities said at least 145 people had been injured, with 16 people in a “critical state” on Saturday.

“The number of victims of the terrorist attack will grow significantly,” said Andrei Vorobyov, the governor of the Moscow region.

Photographs on Friday evening showed Crocus City Hall engulfed in flames as graphic videos appeared to show several people being killed by the unidentified gunmen.

In one clip, three men in fatigues carrying rifles fired at point-blank range into bodies strewn about the lobby of the concert hall. ​​Other video footage showed people screaming, crawling on their hands and knees out of the music venue or fleeing down stairwells.

The attack came minutes before a veteran Russian rock band was to start playing in front of a sold-out audience.

Witness accounts described scenes of chaos and confusion, with many concertgoers initially assuming the sound of gunshots was part of the show.

“We entered the hall and took our seats right in the centre. At some moment we heard a large bang coming from outside the room, we thought it was part of the concert,” Arina, a clinical psychologist from Moscow told the Guardian.

Moscow concert hall attack: what we know so far – video report

“But at some point, we understood something was seriously wrong, we realised there were shootings. Then we saw a man in camouflage holding an automatic gun … we all lay on the ground,” she said. “I looked beside me and I saw many injured people covered in blood.”

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.

The Russian investigative committee said those killed in the concert hall died of gunshot wounds and “poisoning” related to the fire.

The committee added that the attackers had used “a flammable liquid to set fire to the premises of the concert hall”.

Baza, a Telegram channel close to Russia’s security services, said more than 10 bodies of victims had been found in one of the toilets at Crocus City Hall.

According to the channel, the victims were hiding from the shooting but later died because of the smoke.

The international community condemned the incident, with the UN security council calling it a “heinous and cowardly terrorist attack”.

'I started to panic': survivor of Moscow attack tells of how she escaped gunmen – video

The British foreign secretary, David Cameron, said the UK “condemns the deadly attack in the strongest possible terms”.

The Crocus City Hall shooting was the deadliest attack in Russia since the 2004 Beslan school siege, in which 334 people, including 186 children, were killed after being held captive by militants for two days.

Questions will be raised as to why Putin appeared to have rejected a terror warning weeks before the attack.

The attack on Friday came two weeks after western countries led by the US had issued terror warnings and told their citizens not to join public gatherings in Russia.

The group that claimed credit for the deadly terrorist attack was an Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan called Islamic State Khorasan Province, or ISKP.

According to US officials, Washington had collected intelligence in March that ISKP had been planning an attack on Moscow, according to officials.

ISKP seeks to create a caliphate across Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Putin had called the March warnings from western embassies a “provocation”.

A Kalashnikov assault rifle lies on the ground at the Crocus City Hall. Photograph: AP
A Kalashnikov assault rifle lies on the ground at the Crocus City Hall. Photograph: AP

But, citing a source in Russia’s security services, the state agency Tass on Saturday admitted that Russian security services did indeed receive information from the US over a potential terrorist attack.

The FSB previously said it had foiled an attack on a Moscow synagogue by ISKP.

On Saturday, Russian state news aired footage of interrogations of three alleged attackers, including one where the suspect was speaking in Tajik through an interpreter.

ISKP has previously been reported to have recruited radicalised nationals from central Asia, including Tajikistan.

In one of the clips, circulated by Russian bloggers, members of the security forces are seen cutting off the ear of a man who is later interrogated over the attack.

Russian authorities had also recently carried out a series of raids against armed Islamist militants in the region of Ingushetia, leading to firefights between police and the fighters.

Paweł Wójcik, a specialist in Islamic State messaging and propaganda, said IS messaging after the Moscow attack was similar to previous attacks that the group claimed in Tehran and Kabul.

“The messaging we saw from IS following the attack was standard,” Wójcik told the Guardian.

Wójcik said IS would have “many motives” to launch a terrorist attack in Russia, including Moscow’s involvement in the campaign against IS in Burkina Faso, Mali and Syria.

Putin changed the course of the Syrian civil war by intervening in 2015, supporting the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, against the opposition and IS.

Wójcik added that ISKP had recently “strongly embraced anti-Russia narrative in its propaganda output”.

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