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How the deadliest attack on Russian soil in years took place over the weekend

The hall at Crocus City Hall was about three-quarters full, with the crowd waiting to see Picnic, a band popular since the Soviet era in the early 1980s. But the concert was sold out in the 6,200-seat hall, so some of the audience probably still got food or left their thick coats in the cloakroom.

It was seven to ten minutes before the show was scheduled to start at 8 p.m., said concert-goer Dave Primov.

Then came the banging noises.

“At first I thought: fireworks or something…” Primov told The Associated Press. “I looked at my colleague and he also said: ‘Fireworks probably.'”

But it wasn’t pyrotechnics. At least four khaki-clad men with automatic weapons were inside the building, firing continuously. Then they set fire to the concert hall.

It was the start of the deadliest attack on Russian soil in years, leaving 137 people dead and more than 180 others injured in what President Vladimir Putin called “a bloody, barbaric terrorist attack.” Although he tried to link Ukraine, an affiliate of the Islamic State group claimed responsibility – which was confirmed by US intelligence officials. Kyiv denied any involvement.

Four suspects were arrested in Russia’s Bryansk region. They were identified in Russian media as Tajik nationals. They were accused of committing a terrorist attack and face life imprisonment. They appeared in a Moscow court on Sunday evening and showed signs of severe beating.

Friday night

Crocus City Hall is a large entertainment and shopping complex in Krasnogorsk, a suburb on the northwestern edge of Moscow. It was built by Azerbaijan-born billionaire and real estate developer Aras Agalarov, who had ties to Donald Trump before becoming U.S. president. While Trump co-owned the Miss Universe beauty pageant, he signed an agreement with Agalarov to hold the 2013 event at the Crocus.

On Friday evening, the vast hallways became the scene of carnage as the gunmen entered the auditorium and shot anyone nearby, sometimes at close range.

Videos taken in the hallways and in the auditorium showed people screaming and trying to flee as the gunmen continued to shoot. Some hid behind the dark red seats and tried to crawl toward the exits, media-reported footage and accounts from survivors show.

In one video, a young man says to the camera while shots are fired: “They set the auditorium on fire.” The auditorium is burning.” Flames could be seen for a moment in a corner of the theater.

In this photo from a video released by the press service of the Russian Emergencies Ministry on Sunday, March 24, 2024, rescuers are at work in the burned concert hall after a terrorist attack on the Crocus City Hall building on the western edge of Moscow, Russia , to see. (Press service of the Russian Emergencies Ministry via AP)

Primov and others were able to leave the auditorium before the gunmen reached it, he told the AP. It took about 25 minutes for him to leave the building in total.

He described the scene as complete chaos: panicked people trying to find an exit while gunmen still roamed the scene firing; People fell and bumped into each other as they ran; Men broke open locked doors, hoping they would lead to safety.

“We don’t know what lies ahead. We don’t know what’s behind that door. We don’t know what’s going on outside, maybe we are surrounded (by the attackers), maybe someone is waiting there,” Primov said.

Another survivor, who identified herself only as Maria, echoed Primov: “This uncertainty about where to go and what to do scared us the most, because every person there had no idea what was happening.”

Picnic’s musicians never made it to the stage and left the building shortly after the attack began, their representative Yury Chernyshevsky told AP by phone, shortly after news of the shooting broke. When asked if the band was safe, he replied: “How much security can there be at this point? We hope we are safe.”

At 8:30 p.m., a massive fire raged inside the building, with thick black smoke billowing from the roof, which later collapsed. Russian media reported explosions inside, and it was not clear whether they were triggered by the gunmen or caused by the fire.

Outside, the building was bathed in neon blue from the flashing lights of dozens of ambulances, police and fire trucks. Helicopters poured water on the fire.

A Russian National Guard special unit arrived and searched for the gunmen. Authorities said the attack resulted in deaths and injuries, without giving numbers, and said they were investigating the attack as an act of terrorism.

Various officials – from Moscow regional governor Andrei Vorobyov to Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev – arrived at the scene.

Elsewhere in Russia, authorities tightened security precautions and canceled major events planned for the weekend. According to media reports, two shopping centers in the second largest city of St. Petersburg were evacuated.

Putin made no statement on Friday evening.

At around 11 p.m., the Kremlin issued a terse statement saying Putin had been informed of the shooting “within minutes,” was receiving “constant” updates from government agencies and had issued the necessary orders, according to spokesman Dmitry Peskov didn’t go into more detail.

Saturday

The death toll rose overnight and throughout Saturday as more bodies were discovered at Crocus City Hall, including some in stairwells and a toilet.

Putin, who secured a fifth term in office on March 17 in an election with no real competition, did not address the nation until Saturday afternoon – more than 19 hours after news of the attack broke.

There was debate throughout the night in Russia and abroad about who was responsible for the brazen attack. Authorities in Ukraine, which Russia invaded more than two years ago, quickly and vehemently denied any involvement. The denials were quickly backed by U.S. officials and sparked sharp reactions from Russian officials.

“For what reasons do officials in Washington draw conclusions about someone’s non-involvement in the midst of a tragedy?” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in an online statement. “If the US has or had reliable information about this, it should immediately pass it on to the Russian side. If not, the White House has no right to grant absolution.”

A few hours after the attack began, an affiliate of the Islamic State group claimed responsibility, but some Russian state media personalities branded the attack a fake.

“So far it looks like an attempt to lay a false trail,” wrote state TV journalist Andrei Medvedev on Telegram.

On Saturday, Russian authorities tried to link Ukraine to the attack. The Federal Security Service (FSB) reported the arrest of four armed men in the Bryansk border region, saying they were on their way to Ukraine and had unspecified “contacts on the Ukrainian side.” No details of the manhunt were released, but various law enforcement and security agencies were praised for their “joint action” and it was said a total of 11 people had been arrested.

In his afternoon speech, Putin called the attack “a bloody, barbaric terrorist attack.”

He also repeated the narrative, saying without evidence that “a window” had been prepared for the attackers’ passage into Ukraine. However, he refrained from blaming Kiev for staging the attack. He did not mention the IS branch’s acceptance of responsibility.

He also refrained from announcing any drastic measures after the attack, such as lifting a moratorium on the death penalty, beginning another wave of mobilization in the army or even an escalation of hostilities in Ukraine – something that Kremlin critics say could be imminent.

The Moscow Health Ministry said identifying the bodies of the dead would take at least two weeks.

Sunday

Sunday was declared a national day of mourning. Events were canceled and flags were lowered to half staff.

Outside the burned-out and smoldering Crocus town hall, a steady stream of people streamed in to lay flowers at a makeshift memorial.

A heavy police presence was observed throughout the day at the Basmanny District Court in Moscow as the four suspects were expected. The Russian Investigative Committee released photos of them at its headquarters in Moscow.

Shortly before 11 p.m. – about 51 hours after the shooting began – the suspects appeared one by one in court for their preliminary hearings.

There were bruises on their faces; one had a bandaged ear; another carried a wheelchair and a hospital gown. According to the independent news agency Mediazona, whose reporters attended the hearings, he was admitted from intensive care.

Saidakrami Murodali Rachabalizoda, a suspect in Friday’s Crocus City Hall shooting, sits in a glass cage at the Basmanny District Court in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, March 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

It was not immediately clear how he was injured. According to unconfirmed Russian media reports, he was injured during the search.

The court said two of the suspects admitted their guilt, although the men’s condition raised questions about whether they did so voluntarily.

The suspects, identified in Russian media as Tajik nationals, have been accused of committing a terrorist attack and face life imprisonment.

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