Putin says suspects in concert hall attack detained, death toll rises to 133

Mar 23, 2024, 11:57 AM | Updated: 12:02 pm

Officers stand guard near Moscow's Crocus City Hall...

Law enforcement officers stand guard near the burning Crocus City Hall concert venue following a shooting incident, outside Moscow, Russia, March 22. (Yulia Morozova/Reuters via CNN Newsource)

(Yulia Morozova/Reuters via CNN Newsource)

MOSCOW (CNN) — Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has vowed to punish those behind a deadly attack on a Moscow concert hall which claimed more than 130 lives after authorities said the four main suspects were caught near the border with Ukraine.

Friday’s assault on the Crocus City Hall was the deadliest terror attack on Russia’s capital in decades and comes less than a week after Putin secured victory in a stage-managed election, tightening his grip on the country he has ruled since the turn of the century.

The terror group ISIS claimed responsibility for the deadly incident. A US official said Friday that Washington had no reason to doubt ISIS’ claim.

Emergency vehicle

Emergency services personnel and police work at the scene of the gun attack at the Crocus City Hall concert hall in Krasnogorsk on March 23. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images via CNN Newsource)

Putin linked what he called a “barbaric terrorist attack” to Ukraine in a video statement released Saturday, as he expressed deep condolences and declared Sunday a national day of mourning.

The perpetrators, he said, had “tried to hide and move towards Ukraine, where, according to preliminary data, a window was prepared for them on the Ukrainian side to cross the border.”

Ukraine has denied any connection with the attack and warned that Russia could use it as an excuse to ramp up its invasion.

On Saturday, the Russian Investigative Committee said the death toll in the Crocus City attack had risen to 133, adding that search work continues.

flowers at a makeshift memorial

A person places flowers at a makeshift memorial in front of the Crocus City Hall. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images via CNN Newsource)

Also on Saturday, the Committee said that four men suspected of carrying out the attack had been taken into custody on Friday night near Russia’s border with Ukraine.

“Special services and law enforcement agencies in the Bryansk region, near the border with Ukraine, detained four suspects from among those who committed a terrorist attack in the Crocus City Hall concert hall,” the Committee said.

This was also reported by Russian state media agency RIA Novosti, which said that after the attack, the criminals “intended to cross the border of the Russian Federation and Ukraine and had relevant contacts on the Ukrainian side, the FSB said.” The FSB – Russia’s security agency – did not specify the nature of the alleged contacts.

The Belarus ambassador to Russia meanwhile said that Belarusian special services helped Russia prevent “terrorists” from escaping across the border Friday night.

In his video address, Putin said that a total of 11 people had been detained and that the FSB and other agencies were working to establish “who provided them with transport, escape planned routes from the crime scene, prepared caches, caches of weapons and ammunition.”

“All perpetrators, organizers and instigators of this crime will suffer fair and inevitable punishment,” he added. “Whoever they are, whoever guides them. I repeat: we will identify and punish everyone who stands behind the terrorists, who prepared this atrocity, this attack on Russia, on our people

Russian state media has said all of those detained are foreign citizens.

The Russian state news agency RIA Novosti posted the purported confession of one of the men apprehended in connection with the attack. One of the alleged attackers had mentioned returning to Russia from Turkey earlier this month, according to RIA, and one said he’d been promised half-a-million rubles (about $5,000) to carry out the attack.

CNN cannot independently verify the veracity of the report or the statements made by the alleged attacker, which may have been made under duress.

Several Ukrainian agencies have categorically denied any connection with the attack, while Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry suggested the claim could be used to fuel Russian aggression towards Ukraine.

“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 mobilization 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.

Horrific scenes after gunmen opened fire

Testimony emerged on social media detailing the horrific scenes as survivors recalled playing dead to escape from the concert hall.

Russian media reported the attackers “opened fire with automatic weapons” and “threw a grenade or an incendiary bomb, which started a fire.”

Video showed panic as the attack unfolded, with crowds of people huddling together, screaming and ducking behind cushioned seats as gunshots started echoing in the vast hall. One group sheltering next to a large wall of windows outside the concert venue were forced to break them to escape the gunfire, video obtained by CNN shows.

“They [the assailants] were standing there at the exit,” one woman said on Instagram. “We got up and started walking. They saw us. Some of them ran back and started shooting at people. I fell on the floor and pretended I was dead. And the girl next to me was killed.

“Then the flames flared up and they closed the door. They probably couldn’t lock it. I lay breathing under the door. After some time, I crawled out, looked around, there was smoke everywhere, and I crawled towards the exit.”

Another woman who was inside the concert hall waiting for a performance to begin said on social media: “I saw people above running around, everyone was yelling, like, “Run!”… We started running, and then the shooting began…The next thing I know we’re just falling down the aisle.

“When I got up I cracked my head on a seat. Then we’re just jumping over … when we were running, when we realized that here they were, three or five meters behind us … We were running and then jumping onto the stage, where there was an immediate exit,” she said.

A SWAT team was called to the area and more than 70 ambulance teams and doctors assisted victims.

Video footage from the Crocus City Hall showed the vast complex, which is home to a music hall and shopping center, on fire with smoke billowing into the air.

State media Russia 24 reported the roof of the venue partially collapsed. Rescuers continued to work at the scene on Saturday, the Russian Emergencies Ministries said, including in the auditorium where the ceiling had collapsed.

Firefighters were still working to extinguish fires on the roof, second and third floors of the Crocus City complex, according to the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations. Rescue teams had already cleared 41 cubic meters of rubble.

The carnage broke out before a concert by the band Picnic, according to Russia 24.

Picnic’s manager told state media that the performers were unharmed. Meanwhile, Shaman, the band’s singer, said he would pay for the funerals of the victims and treatment for those injured.

US had warned of potential attack

Earlier this month, the US embassy in Russia said it was “monitoring reports that extremists have imminent plans to target large gatherings in Moscow,” including concerts. The embassy warned US citizens to avoid large gatherings. On Friday, following reports of the Crocus City Hall attack, it advised US citizens not to travel to Russia.

Starting in November, there has been a steady stream of intelligence that ISIS-K was determined to attack in Russia, according to two sources familiar with the information.

ISIS-K stands for ISIS-Khorasan, the terror organization’s affiliate that is active in Afghanistan and the surrounding region.

US National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said the US government had had information about a planned terrorist attack in Moscow – potentially targeting large gatherings, to include concerts – and that this is what prompted the State Department to issue the public advisory.

In a speech Tuesday, Putin had blasted the American warnings as “provocative,” saying “these actions resemble outright blackmail and the intention to intimidate and destabilize our society.”

There has been widespread international condemnation of the attack, with the US, China, Britain and Germany among those expressing condolences.

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Putin says suspects in concert hall attack detained, death toll rises to 133