6 June 2024

Gunmen opened fire at a Moscow concert hall on Friday killing at least 60 people, wounding more than 100 and sparking an inferno, authorities said, with the Islamic State group claiming responsibility.

Attackers dressed in camouflage uniforms entered the building, opened fire and threw a grenade or incendiary bomb, according to a journalist for the RIA Novosti news agency at the scene.

Fire quickly spread through the Crocus City concert hall in Moscow’s northern Krasnogorsk suburb, as smoke filled the building and screaming visitors rushed to emergency exits.

Alexei, a music producer, was about to settle into his seat before the start of a rock concert when he heard gunfire and “a lot of screams”.

“I realised right away that it was automatic gunfire and understood that most likely it’s the worst: a terrorist attack,” said Alexei, who would not give his last name.

As people ran towards emergency exits, “there was a terrible crush” with concert-goers climbing on one another’s heads to get out, he added.

Russia’s FSB security service said at least 40 people were killed and more than 100 others injured, according to Russian media reports.

Russia’s Health Minister Mikhail Murashko said 115 people were hospitalised, including five children, one of whom was in grave condition. Of the 110 adult patients, 60 were in serious condition.

Authorities said a “terrorist” investigation had been started and President Vladimir Putin was receiving “constant” updates, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agencies.

Russia’s national guard said it was on the scene and looking for the perpetrators. An AFP reporter saw police officers with sniffer dogs inspecting vehicles parked next to the building.

The Islamic State group said its fighters attacked “a large gathering” on Moscow’s outskirts and “retreated to their bases safely”.

– Fire contained –

Telegram news channels Baza and Mash, which are close to security forces, showed video images of flames and black smoke pouring from the hall.

Other images also showed concert-goers hiding behind seats or trying to escape.

Security services quoted by Interfax said between two and five people “wearing tactical uniforms and carrying automatic weapons” opened fire on guards at the entrance and then started shooting at the audience.

About 100 people escaped through the theatre basement, while others were sheltering on the roof, the emergency services ministry said on its Telegram channel.

Three helicopters were involved in efforts to put out the fire, dumping water on the giant concert hall that can hold several thousand people and has hosted top international artists.

Shortly after midnight, the emergencies ministry said the fire had been contained.

– ‘Odious crime’ –

Outside the burning building, heartbroken relatives of those at the concert spoke of hopelessness as they frantically tried to contact loved ones.

Semyon, 33, whose wife attended, said “nobody knows” where she is. “I’ve called five hospitals, all busy,” he said. “I’m in a complete panic, my whole body hurts.”

Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said it had been a “bloody terrorist attack”.

“The whole international community must condemn this odious crime,” she said on Telegram.

The US presidency called the attack “terrible” and said there was no immediate sign of any link to the conflict in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s presidency said Kyiv had “nothing to do” with the attack, while its military intelligence called the incident a Russian “provocation” and charged that Moscow special services were behind it.

The Freedom of Russia Legion, a pro-Ukrainian militia responsible for attacks on Russia’s border regions, also denied any role.

Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev vowed on Telegram that Ukraine’s top officials “must be found and ruthlessly destroyed as terrorists” if they were linked to the attack.

The European Union, France, Spain and Italy joined several countries in condemning the attack, with Italian premier Giorgia Meloni denouncing “an odious act of terrorism”.

French President Emmanuel Macron expressed “solidarity with the victims, their loved ones and all the Russian people”.

Orthodox church leader Patriarch Kirill was “praying for peace for the souls of the dead”, said his spokesman Vladimir Legoyda.

– Previous warnings –

Moscow and other Russian cities have been the targets of previous attacks by Islamist groups but there have also been incidents without any clear political motive.

Earlier this month, the US embassy in Russia said it was monitoring reports that “extremists” were planning “to target large gatherings in Moscow”, including concerts.

In 2002, Chechen separatist fighters took 912 people hostage in a Moscow theatre, the Dubrovka, demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops from the region.

Special forces attacked the theatre to end the hostage-taking and 130 people were killed, nearly all suffocated by a gas used by security forces to knock out the gunmen.

by AFP