Russia: 11 Foreign Suspects Detained As Death Toll From Concert Attack Reaches 133


(RFE/RL) — Rescuers pulled more bodies from the rubble of a Moscow-area concert venue on March 23 as the toll from a deadly attack claimed by the Islamic State (IS) militant group reached 133 and security officials said four suspected gunmen had been detained in connection with Russia’s worst terrorist violence in nearly two decades.

Russian officials said the suspects were all foreign nationals and that 11 people, in all, had been detained.

The day after camouflaged gunmen burst into the Crocus City Hall and opened fire on people waiting for a concert to begin, the national Investigative Committee warned that the death toll was expected to climb further as searchers recovered more victims from the wreckage of the hall. More than 120 people were wounded and remained hospitalized in various conditions, health officials said.

The incident was Russia’s worst terrorist attack in nearly two decades.

Hundreds of mourners solemnly heaped flowers, stuffed animals, and messages of grief or defiance on the pavement just outside the Crocus City Hall building. 

More makeshift memorials to honor the victims sprang up in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, and many other Russian cities, including flowers, candles, and messages to the families of victims. Flags flew at half-mast above government buildings in some places. 

At the hollowed-out site of one of the deadliest acts of terror in modern Russian history, School No. 1 in Beslan, in southern Russia, where 333 people including mostly schoolchildren were killed after being taken hostage for three days in 2004, Russians spelled out “Moscow we mourn” with candles.

President Vladimir Putin decried the violence as a “bloody, barbaric terrorist attack” and he declared March 24 as a day of national mourning.

“The main thing now is to prevent those who are behind this bloodbath from committing a new crime,” he said in a recorded video address released by the Kremlin midafternoon on March 23.

Putin also alleged Ukrainian involvement, echoing earlier suggestions by other Russian officials who said that four suspected gunmen had been detained, and that some of perpetrators were arrested in the western Bryansk region, which borders Belarus and Ukraine.

The four “tried to hide and were moving toward Ukraine, where, according to preliminary information, the Ukrainian side had prepared a window for them to cross the border,” he said.

Putin provided no evidence to back up the claim. Ukrainian officials denied any involvement shortly after the violence erupted, and Mykhaylo Podolyak, a top aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, repeated those denials shortly before Putin’s address was released.

“First, there are no facts that would in any way indicate a Ukrainian trace. Second, it makes no sense for us to carry out this type of action,” Podolyak told Current Time, a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. “We are a bit busy with different things. A full-scale war is ongoing in our country.”

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) rejected Putin’s suggestion of a “window” being prepared on the Ukrainian side of the border to help the attackers escape.

GUR spokesperson Andriy Yusov said Putin’s assertion “doesn’t withstand scrutiny.” One month into the third year of Russia’s all-out invasion, he said, border areas are filled with “troops, special agents, representatives of special services, security forces,” and “the border is mined, surveillance is carried out in all kinds of ways, including aerial reconnaissance, on both sides.”

In a seeming reference to the war in Ukraine, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk warned that the attack must not become a “pretext” for more “violence.”

Putin’s suggestion of Ukrainian involvement contrasted with the claim by the Islamic State (IS) militant group, which issued a statement of responsibility not long after the attack and on March 23 published photos of four men it claimed were the attackers. Their faces were pixelated to be unrecognizable.

The group said they had dealt a “heavy blow” with assault rifles and explosives by targeting “Christians.” It said it was part of a “raging war” against countries fighting Islam.

“The attack was carried out by four IS fighters armed with machine guns, a pistol, knives, and firebombs,” IS said via Telegram.

Emergency workers continued removing bodies from the wreckage of the fire-ravaged venue, using heavy saws to cut through metal beams and girders. The hall is a popular concert venue in a high-end district on the edge of Moscow that attracts major Russian musical acts.

The deaths were caused by either gunshot wounds or asphyxiation apparently from burning materials, said the Investigative Committee, adding that the toll was likely climb. Attackers used an unspecified flammable substance to set fire to the Crocus City Hall

The Russian Investigative Committee said it was awarding one man for “unparalleled courage” when he “selflessly neutralized one of the terrorists” while trying to protect his wife, “saving the lives of the people around him.” It did not further identify the man.

The identities and motives of the attackers remained unclear. Aleksander Bortnikov, the director of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying 11 people had been detained, including four of the suspected gunmen.

Later, the Russian Interior Ministry said the Crocus attackers were foreign nationals, without specifying.

The Interfax news agency quoted FSB officials as saying the four had been heading to the Ukrainian border, and that they had contacts in Ukraine.

Unnamed officials and Telegram channels known for links to security services suggested that several of the attackers may have been Tajik, or Russian citizens with Tajik background. The reports prompted pushback from Tajikistan’s Foreign Ministry, which denied the reports and published detailed information on several of the men whose names were circulating.

Putin had made no public statements about the incident until the afternoon of the attack, but earlier on March 23 Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying that the Russian leader “gave all the necessary instructions,” and the Kremlin released several statements saying Putin had received condolences from foreign leaders.

The attack began around 7:30 p.m. local time when camouflaged men armed with automatic rifles arrived at the venue in a minivan. As many as five men were involved, Russian media reported.

Video posted on social media shortly after the attack began showed concertgoers entering the 6,200-seat hall and taking their seats when pandemonium erupted. As bullets sprayed around the hall, hundreds of people could be seen running for exits while others sought cover.

The scheduled concert was for a Soviet-era band called Piknik.

One man who escaped from the attack told Current Time that the shooting started just moments before the concert was supposed to begin.

“It was supposed to be starting when we heard something which I thought were fireworks or gunshots inside the venue,” the man, who asked to be identified only by the pseudonym Dave, said in a phone interview. “The moment after, we saw beneath us a stream of people running inside the hall. After that, gunshots were already heard inside [the hall]. Of course, panic started on the balcony too. People didn’t know where to run.”

Hours after the incident began, Telegram channels affiliated with Islamic State (IS) ran a statement saying the group’s fighters “attacked a large gathering…on the outskirts of the Russian capital Moscow.”

The statement by Islamic State said the attackers had “retreated to their bases safely,” though that claim could not be independently confirmed.

U.S. officials confirmed the authenticity of the claim in comments to multiple U.S. media.

Two weeks earlier, on March 7, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow had warned Russia that “extremists” had imminent plans for an attack in the capital.

On the same day as the U.S. Embassy announcement, the Federal Security Service claimed it had stopped an attack on a Moscow synagogue by Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan, known as Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K).

The attack was the worst in Russia since 2004, when gunmen seized more than 1,000 hostages at a school in the southern Russian town of Beslan. More than 330 people, nearly half of them children, ultimately died in that attack.

World leaders condemned the attack.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was quoted as saying that he “condemns in the strongest possible terms” the incident, and the United States, France, Turkey, Italy, the European Union, and other leaders also issued statements, deploring the violence.


RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

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