Russia says 60 dead, 145 injured in concert hall raid; The Islamic State group claims responsibility

The Associated Press

Published on Friday, March 22, 2024 6:07 pmEDT

Last updated Friday, March 22, 2024 9:13 pmEDT

MOSCOW (AP) – Assailants stormed a large concert hall in Moscow on Friday and fired into the crowd, killing more than 60 people, wounding more than 100 and setting the venue on fire in a brazen attack just days after the President Vladimir Putin will cement his grip on power in a highly orchestrated landslide election.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement posted on affiliated social media channels. A U.S. intelligence official told The Associated Press that U.S. intelligence agencies had learned that the group’s Afghanistan branch was planning an attack in Moscow and shared the information with Russian officials.

It was not immediately clear what happened to the attackers after the attack, which state investigators were investigating as terrorism.

The attack, which left the concert hall in flames and with the roof collapsing, was the deadliest in Russia in years and came as the country’s war in Ukraine entered its third year. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin called the raid a “huge tragedy.”

The Kremlin said Putin was informed minutes after the attackers broke into Crocus City Hall, a large music venue on the western edge of Moscow that seats 6,200 people.

The attack took place as a crowd gathered to attend a performance by Russian rock band Picnic. The Investigative Committee, the state’s main criminal investigation agency, reported early Saturday that more than 60 people were killed. Health authorities published a list of 145 injured, 115 of them hospitalized, including five children.

Some Russian news reports suggested that more victims may have been trapped by the fire that broke out after attackers threw explosives.

Video showed the building in flames, with a huge cloud of smoke rising into the night sky. The street was illuminated by the flashing blue lights of dozens of fire trucks, ambulances and other emergency vehicles, as fire helicopters flew overhead to drop water on the blaze that took hours to contain.

Prosecutors said several men dressed in combat uniforms entered the concert hall and shot at attendees.

Dave Primov, who was in the hallway during the attack, described the panic and chaos when the attack began.

“There were bursts of gunfire,” Primov told the AP. “We all got up and tried to move towards the hallways. People started to panic, started running and crashing into each other. Some fell and others were trampled.”

Videos posted by Russian media and on messaging app channels showed men armed with assault rifles shooting screaming people at point-blank range. A video showed a man in the auditorium saying that the attackers had set him on fire, while incessant gunshots could be heard.

The concert hall guards had no weapons and some may have died at the start of the attack, Russian media reported. Some Russian media outlets suggested that the attackers fled before special forces and riot police arrived. Reports said police patrols were searching for several vehicles that the attackers could have used to escape.

In a statement published by its Aamaq news agency, the Islamic State group said it attacked a large gathering of “Christians” in Krasnogorsk, outside Moscow, killing and wounding hundreds. It was not immediately possible to verify the authenticity of the claim.

However, U.S. intelligence officials confirmed the claim by the Afghanistan-based branch of the Islamic State group that it was responsible for the attack on Moscow, a U.S. official told the AP.

The official said U.S. intelligence agencies had gathered information in recent weeks that the IS branch was planning an attack in Moscow. He said U.S. officials privately shared the intelligence earlier this month with Russian officials. 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.

Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, an expert on the terrorist group, noted that the IS statement presented its claim as an attack against Christians and said it appeared to reflect the group’s strategy of “striking wherever they can as part of a ‘global fight against ‘infidels’ and apostates everywhere.”‘

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.

On March 7, Russia’s top security agency said it foiled an attack on a synagogue in Moscow by an Islamic State cell, killing 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 volatile Caucasus region.

On Friday, statements of outrage, shock and support for those affected by the concert attack came from around the world.

Some commentators on Russian social media questioned how authorities, who relentlessly monitor and pressure Kremlin critics, failed to identify the threat and prevent the attack.

Russian officials said security was beefed up at airports, railway stations and Moscow’s extensive subway system. Moscow’s mayor canceled all mass gatherings and theaters and museums closed over the weekend. Other Russian regions also beefed up security.

The Kremlin did not immediately blame anyone for the attack, but some Russian lawmakers were quick to blame Ukraine and called for the attacks to be stepped up. Hours before the attack, the Russian military launched a sweeping bombardment of Ukraine’s electrical system, paralyzing the country’s largest hydroelectric plant and other energy facilities and leaving more than a million people without electricity.

Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, said that if Ukraine’s involvement was proven, all those involved “must be tracked down and mercilessly killed, including the state officials who committed such an atrocity.”

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, denied Ukraine’s involvement.

“Ukraine has never resorted to the use of terrorist methods,” he posted on X. “Everything in this war will be decided only on the battlefield.”

John Kirby, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said he could not yet discuss the details but “the images are simply horrifying. And it’s hard to watch.”

Friday’s attack followed a statement earlier this month from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow urging Americans to avoid crowded places in light of extremists’ “imminent” plans to attack large gatherings in the Russian capital, including concerts. The warning was echoed by several other Western embassies.

National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said Friday that the U.S. government had information about a planned attack in Moscow, prompting the State Department to notify Americans. The U.S. government shared the information with Russian authorities in accordance with its long-standing “duty to warn” policy, Watson said.

Putin, who extended his control over Russia for another six years in this week’s presidential election after a widespread crackdown on dissent, denounced the Western warnings as an attempt to intimidate Russians. “This all looks like open blackmail and an attempt to scare and destabilize our society,” he said earlier this week.

Russia was rocked by a series of deadly terrorist attacks in the early 2000s during fighting with separatists in the Russian province of Chechnya.

In October 2002, Chechen militants took about 800 people hostage in a Moscow theater. Two days later, Russian special forces stormed the building and 129 hostages and 41 Chechen fighters died, most from the effects of the narcotic gas that Russian forces used to subdue the attackers.

In September 2004, about 30 Chechen militants took over a school in Beslan, southern Russia, and took hundreds of hostages. The siege ended in a bloodbath two days later and more than 330 people, about half of them children, died.

Associate Press writer Michael Balsamo in Washington contributed to this report.

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