Russia arrests suspected gunmen as concert death toll soars to 133

Published March 23, 2024
A view shows the Crocus City Hall concert venue following Friday’s deadly attack, outside Moscow, Russia, March 23, 2024. —Sergei Vedyashkin/Moscow News Agency/Handout via Reuters
A view shows the Crocus City Hall concert venue following Friday’s deadly attack, outside Moscow, Russia, March 23, 2024. —Sergei Vedyashkin/Moscow News Agency/Handout via Reuters

Russia said on Saturday it had arrested 11 people, including four suspected gunmen, in connection with a shooting rampage that killed 133 people in a concert hall near Moscow, the deadliest attack in Russia for 20 years.

The militant Islamic State group claimed responsibility for Friday’s attack but there were indications that Russia was pursuing a Ukrainian link, despite a statement from Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak that Kyiv had nothing to do with it.

Russia’s state Investigative Committee said 133 people had been killed. State TV editor Margarita Simonyan, without citing a source, had earlier given a toll of 143.

In a televised address, Putin said 11 people had been detained, including the four gunmen. “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,” he said.

The FSB security service said the gunmen had contacts in Ukraine and were captured near the border. It said they were being transferred to Moscow.

The FSB security service said “all four terrorists” had been arrested while heading to the Ukrainian border, and that they had contacts in Ukraine. It said they were being transferred to Moscow.

Neither Putin nor the FSB publicly presented any proof of a link with Ukraine, with which Russia has been waging war for the past 25 months.

“Now we know in which country these bloody bastards planned to hide from pursuit — Ukraine,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Telegram.

Russian law enforcement officers stand guard near the Crocus City Hall concert venue following a shooting incident, outside Moscow, Russia, March 23, 2024.—Reuters
Russian law enforcement officers stand guard near the Crocus City Hall concert venue following a shooting incident, outside Moscow, Russia, March 23, 2024.—Reuters

Ukrainian military intelligence spokesman Andriy Yusov told Reuters: “Ukraine was of course not involved in this terror attack. Ukraine is defending its sovereignty from Russian invaders, liberating its own territory and is fighting with the occupiers’ army and military targets, not civilians.”

He said the FSB version that the suspects were arrested en route to Ukraine was “of course another lie from the Russian special services”.

Putin address

Putin cast the enemy as “international terrorism” and said that he was ready to work with any state that wanted to defeat it.

“All the perpetrators, organisers and those who ordered this crime will be justly and inevitably punished. Whoever they are, whoever is guiding them,” Putin said. “We will identify and punish everyone who stands behind the terrorists, who prepared this atrocity, this strike against Russia, against our people.”

A senior Russian lawmaker, Andrei Kartapolov, said that if Ukraine was involved, then Russia must deliver a “worthy, clear and concrete” reply on the battlefield.

Verified footage from Friday’s attack showed camouflage-clad gunmen opening fire with automatic weapons at concert-goers in the Crocus City Hall near the capital. Video showed people taking their seats, then rushing for the exits as repeated gunfire echoed above screams.

Investigators said some died from gunshot wounds and others in a huge fire that broke out in the complex. Reports said the gunmen had lit the blaze using petrol from canisters they carried in rucksacks.

People fled in panic. Baza, a news outlet with good contacts in Russian security and law enforcement, said 28 bodies were found in a toilet and 14 on a staircase. “Many mothers were found embracing their children,” it said.

Russian lawmaker Alexander Khinshtein said the attackers had fled in a Renault vehicle that was spotted by police in the Bryansk region, about 340 kilometres southwest of Moscow on Friday night. He said a car chase ensued after they disobeyed orders to stop.

Khinshtein said a pistol, a magazine for an assault rifle, and passports from Tajikistan were found in the car. Tajikistan is a mainly Muslim Central Asian state that used to be part of the Soviet Union.

Suspect interrogated

TV editor Simonyan published a video showing one of the suspects, a young, bearded man, being interrogated aggressively by a roadside, replying in heavily accented Russian to a series of barked questions. He said he had flown from Turkey on March 4 and had received instructions from unknown people via Telegram to carry out the attack in exchange for money.

The man was trembling throughout the questioning. He was initially shown lying on his stomach with his hands bound behind his back, his chin resting on the boot of a figure in a camouflage uniform. Later he was hauled up onto his knees.

Another man with cuts and bruises to his face was shown being questioned via an interpreter while sitting on a bench with bound hands and feet.

Russia has yet to publicly present evidence of any Ukrainian link to the attack.

President Vladimir Putin, re-elected last Sunday for another six-year term, has repeatedly told Russians that various powers, including countries in the West, are seeking to sow chaos inside Russia.

The Kremlin said Putin had held conversations with the leaders of Belarus and Uzbekistan in which all sides affirmed their willingness to work together to fight terrorism.

Guns and screams

Verified video showed people taking their seats in the concert hall, then rushing for the exits as repeated gunfire echoed above screams. Other video showed men shooting at groups of people. Some victims lay motionless in pools of blood.

“Suddenly there were bangs behind us — shots. A burst of firing — I do not know what,” one witness, who asked not to be identified by name, told Reuters.

Long lines formed in Moscow on Saturday for people to donate blood. Health officials said more than 120 people were wounded.

“The death toll is expected to rise,” the Investigative Committee, which handles major crimes in Russia, said on Telegram.

A digital board with a date and a slogan, that reads “We mourn” displayed in memory of victims of the shooting incident, is seen opposite the Crocus City Hall concert venue on the outskirts of Moscow, Russia, March 23, 2024.—Reuters
A digital board with a date and a slogan, that reads “We mourn” displayed in memory of victims of the shooting incident, is seen opposite the Crocus City Hall concert venue on the outskirts of Moscow, Russia, March 23, 2024.—Reuters

The Moscow city and regional governments said they would provide financial support for the families of the victims and those injured, as well as pay for funerals.

Islamic State, the fighter group that once sought control over swathes of Iraq and Syria, claimed responsibility for the attack, the group’s Amaq agency said on Telegram.

Islamic State said its fighters attacked on the outskirts of Moscow, “killing and wounding hundreds and causing great destruction to the place before they withdrew to their bases safely”. The statement gave no further detail.

US intelligence

The United States has intelligence confirming Islamic State’s claim of responsibility for the shooting, a US official said on Friday. The official said Washington had warned Moscow in recent weeks of the possibility of an attack.

Putin had publicly dismissed Western warnings of an imminent attack in Moscow as propaganda designed to scare Russian citizens.

“We did warn the Russians appropriately,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, without providing any additional details.

The attack on Crocus City Hall, about 20km from the Kremlin, happened two weeks after the US embassy in Russia warned that “extremists” had imminent plans for an attack in Moscow.

Ambulances and vehicles of Russian emergency services are parked outside the burning Crocus City Hall concert venue following a shooting incident, outside Moscow, Russia, March 22, 2024. —Reuters
Ambulances and vehicles of Russian emergency services are parked outside the burning Crocus City Hall concert venue following a shooting incident, outside Moscow, Russia, March 22, 2024. —Reuters

Hours before the embassy warning, the FSB said it had foiled an attack on a Moscow synagogue by Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan, known as ISIS-Khorasan or ISIS-K, which seeks a caliphate across Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Iran.

Putin changed the course of the Syrian civil war by intervening in 2015, supporting President Bashar al-Assad against the opposition and Islamic State.

“ISIS-K has been fixated on Russia for the past two years, frequently criticising Putin in its propaganda,” said Colin Clarke of the Soufan Center.

The broader Islamic State group has claimed deadly attacks across the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Europe, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka.

Condemnations

World leaders denounced a deadly attack by gunmen on a Moscow, and offered condolences and expressions of solidarity to the government.

Pakistan condemned the attack and expressed its deepest sympathies with families of the victims.

“We strongly condemn the horrendous attack carried out at a concert hall in Moscow,” the Foreign Office shared in a statement on X.

“At this difficult hour, we stand in solidarity with the people and Government of the Russian Federation.”

Separately, state-run PTV posted on X that Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif strongly condemned the dastardly terrorist attack in Russia. “Our prayers are with the families of the bereaved in their hour of grief.”

President Vladimir Putin wished a speedy recovery to the wounded victims and conveyed his thanks to doctors, Russia’s deputy prime minister Tatyana Golikova was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies on Saturday after meeting with him.

Putin has yet to comment publicly on the attack.

Ukraine, which has been facing a Russian military offensive for the past two years, had “nothing to do” with the attack, presidential aide Mykhailo Podolyak said on Telegram.

The main intelligence directorate of the Ukrainian defence ministry said “the terrorist attack in Moscow was a planned and deliberate provocation by the Russian special services on Putin’s orders”, alleging that the aim was to “further escalate and expand the war” with Ukraine.

United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres on Friday condemned “in the strongest possible terms today’s terrorist attack”, spokesman Farhan Haq said in a statement.

Guterres “conveys his deep condolences to the bereaved families and the people and the Government of the Russian Federation,” he added, referring to Russia by its official name.

The UN Security Council also offered its condolences and urged all states “to cooperate actively” with the Russian government and other authorities to hold perpetrators and backers of “these reprehensible acts of terrorism accountable and bring them to justice”.

“The members of the Security Council condemned in the strongest terms the heinous and cowardly terrorist attack,” their statement said.

The White House sent its condolences to the victims of the “terrible” shooting, saying it was trying to get more information.

“Our thoughts are with the victims of this terrible shooting attack,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters. “The images are just horrible and just hard to watch.” The White House also said that the United States warned Russian authorities earlier in March about a “planned terrorist attack” possibly targeting “large gatherings” in Moscow.

Chinese President Xi Jinping “strongly condemned” the attack and sent his condolences to Putin, state media reported.

Xi “stressed that China opposes all form of terrorism, strongly condemns the terrorist attack and firmly supports the Russian government’s efforts to safeguard its national security and stability,” Xinhua news agency said.

The European Union said it was “shocked and appalled” by the Moscow attack.

“The EU condemns any attacks against civilians. Our thoughts are with all those Russian citizens affected,” said an EU spokesman.

French President Emmanuel Macron said he “strongly condemns the terrorist attack claimed by the Islamic State”, according to the Elysee Palace.

“France expresses its solidarity with the victims, their loved ones and all the Russian people,” the palace said.

A view shows the Crocus City Hall concert venue following Friday’s deadly attack, outside Moscow, Russia, March 23, 2024. —Sergei Vedyashkin/Moscow News Agency/Handout via Reuters
A view shows the Crocus City Hall concert venue following Friday’s deadly attack, outside Moscow, Russia, March 23, 2024. —Sergei Vedyashkin/Moscow News Agency/Handout via Reuters

“The images of the terrible attack on innocent people in Crocus City Hall near Moscow are horrific. The background must be investigated quickly,” Germany’s foreign office said on X, alongside condolences for the victims’ families.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni called the attack an “odious act of terrorism”.

“The horror of the massacre of innocent civilians in Moscow is unacceptable,” Meloni said in a statement, expressing her “full solidarity with the affected people and the victims’ families”.

Spain said it was “shocked” by the attack, saying it “condemns any form of violence”.

“Our solidarity with the victims, their families and the Russian people,” the Spanish foreign ministry wrote on X.

“Saddened by tonight’s tragic events in Moscow. Our hearts go out to the families of the victims and to all those affected,” Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz posted on X.

The presidency of the Palestinian Authority condemned the attack and “affirmed its solidarity and support for the Russian leadership and the friendly people of Russia, emphasising its keenness on stability in the friendly Russian Federation,” according to the official Wafa news agency.

“We express our support for President Vladimir Putin and raise our voice to categorically reject any act of violence,” said Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on X.

Mexico’s foreign affairs ministry said it “rejects any act of violence against civilian lives”.

“India stands in solidarity with the government and the people of the Russian Federation in this hour of grief,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on X, denouncing the “heinous terrorist attack”.

Japan condemned the attack, extended its condolences to the bereaved and expressed “its heartfelt sympathy to those who were injured”, according to a statement from foreign ministry press secretary Kobayashi Maki.

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