Putin says gunmen who stormed Moscow concert hall tried to escape to Ukraine. Kyiv denies involvement

Moscow, Russia –

The concert hall in suburban Moscow where gunmen opened fire on concertgoers was a blackened, smoldering ruin on Saturday as the death toll in the attack surpassed 130 and Russian authorities arrested four suspects. President Vladimir Putin claimed they were captured while fleeing to Ukraine.

kyiv strongly denied any involvement in Friday’s assault on the Crocus City Hall music venue in Krasnogorsk, and the Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State group claimed responsibility.

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

U.S. intelligence officials confirmed the IS affiliate’s claim that it was responsible for the attack, a U.S. official told The Associated Press. U.S. intelligence agencies gathered information in recent weeks that the IS branch was planning an attack in Moscow, and U.S. officials privately shared the intelligence with Russian officials earlier this month, the U.S. official said. The official was briefed on the matter but was not authorized to publicly discuss the intelligence and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.

Putin said authorities detained a total of 11 people in the attack, which also injured more than 100 concertgoers and left the venue on the western edge of Moscow in smoldering ruins. He called it “a barbaric and bloody terrorist act” and said Russian authorities captured the four suspected gunmen as they tried to escape to Ukraine through a “window” prepared for them on the Ukrainian side of the border.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks on photo in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, March 23, 2024. (Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo/AP Photo)

Russian media broadcast videos apparently showing the detention and interrogation of suspects, including one who told cameras that an unidentified assistant of an Islamic preacher approached him via a messaging app and paid him to participate in the raid.

Russian news reports identified the gunmen as citizens of Tajikistan, a former Soviet republic 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.

Tajikistan’s Foreign Ministry, which denied initial Russian media reports naming several other Tajiks allegedly involved in the raid, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Saturday’s arrests.

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

He declared Sunday a day of mourning and said additional security measures were imposed across Russia.

The attack, the deadliest in Russia in years, is a huge embarrassment for the Russian leader and came just days after he consolidated his control over the country for another six years in a vote that followed the harshest crackdown on dissent since Soviet times.

The death toll rose to 133, making the attack the deadliest in Russia in years. Officials said the death toll could still rise.

The raid was a huge embarrassment for the Russian leader and came just days after he consolidated his control over 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 repressed any opposition activity and muzzled independent media, failed to prevent the attack despite warnings from the United States.

The attack came two weeks after the US embassy in Moscow issued an advisory urging Americans to avoid crowded places in light of extremists’ “imminent” plans to attack large gatherings in Moscow, including concerts. Several other Western embassies repeated the warning. Earlier this week, Putin denounced the warning as an attempt to intimidate Russians.

Firefighters work at the burned-out concert hall after an attack on the Crocus City Hall building in far western Moscow, Russia. (Russian Investigative Committee/AP Photo)

On Saturday, investigators combed through the charred remains of the room in search of more victims, and authorities said the death toll could still rise. Hundreds of people lined up in Moscow to donate blood and plasma, Russia’s Health Ministry said.

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 Zelenskyy angrily rejected Moscow’s accusations as an attempt by Putin and his lieutenants to shift the blame to Ukraine while treating his own people as “expendable.”

“They are burning our cities and 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 led 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.”

Images shared by Russian state media showed emergency vehicles still gathered in front of the ruins of Crocus City Hall, which could hold more than 6,000 people and hosted many major events, including the 2013 Miss Universe beauty pageant in which Donald Trump participated. .

On Friday, a crowd flocked to the venue to attend a concert by Russian rock group Picnic.

Videos posted online showed gunmen at the scene shooting civilians at close 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 the roof to collapse.

Dave Primov, who survived the attack, told the AP that the gunmen were “shooting directly into the crowd” in the front rows. He described the chaos in the room as concert-goers ran to escape: “People started to panic, started running and bumped into each other. Some fell and some got trampled.”

After he and others left the hallway toward nearby utility rooms, he said he heard pops of small explosives and smelled burning as the attackers set the building on fire. When they left the huge building, 25 minutes later, it was already engulfed in flames.

“If a little more time had passed, we would just be stuck in the fire,” Primov said.

Messages of indignation, shock and support for the victims and their families have come from all over the world.

On Friday, the UN Security Council condemned the attack and stressed the need for perpetrators to be held accountable. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also condemned the terrorist attack “in the strongest possible terms,” ​​his spokeswoman said.

ISIS, which lost much of its ground after Russia’s military action in Syria, has long attacked Russia. In a statement carried by the group’s Aamaq news agency, the IS affiliate in Afghanistan said it had attacked a large gathering of “Christians” in Krasnogorsk.

On Saturday, the group issued a new statement in Aamaq saying the attack was carried out by four men who used automatic rifles, a pistol, knives and incendiary bombs. He said the attackers fired into the crowd and used knives to kill some concertgoers, portraying the attack as part of IS’s ongoing war with countries it says are fighting Islam.

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

The group, which operates mainly in Syria and Iraq but also in Afghanistan and Africa, has also claimed several attacks in the volatile Russian Caucasus and other regions in recent years. He recruited fighters from Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union.

The group’s affiliate in Afghanistan is known as ISIS-K or IS-K, taking its name from the province of Khorasan, a region that covered much of Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia in the Middle Ages.

The affiliate has thousands of fighters who have repeatedly carried out attacks in Afghanistan since the country was captured in 2021 by the Taliban, a group with which they have bitter disagreements.

ISIS-K was behind the August 2021 suicide bombing at Kabul airport that left 13 US soldiers and about 170 Afghans dead during the chaotic US withdrawal. They also claimed responsibility for a bomb attack in Kerman, Iran, in January, which killed 95 people at a memorial procession.

On March 7, just hours before the US embassy warned of imminent attacks, Russia’s top security agency said it had thwarted an attack on a synagogue in Moscow by an IS cell and killed several of its members in the Kaluga region, near the Russian capital. A few days earlier, Russian authorities said six suspected IS members were killed in a shootout in Ingushetia, in Russia’s Caucasus region.

Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo in Washington and Colleen Long in Wilmington, Delaware, contributed to this report.

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