Russia arrests suspected gunmen as toll from concert shooting hits 143

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Russia has arrested 11 people including four suspected gunmen in connection with a shooting rampage that killed at least 143 people in a concert hall near Moscow, the Kremlin said on Saturday.

ISIS claimed responsibility for Friday’s attack, the deadliest in Russia for 20 years. 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.

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.

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

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.

State TV editor Margarita Simonyan published a video of one of the suspects, a young bearded man, being interrogated by the side of a road. She said the death toll had climbed to 143 but did not give the source of her information.

Russia’s Investigative Committee earlier said at least 115 had died in the attack, in which camouflage-clad gunmen opened fire with automatic weapons at concertgoers in the Crocus City Hall near the capital.

It 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.

The Kremlin said FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov had reported to President Vladimir Putin that those detained included “four terrorists” and that the service was working to identify their accomplices.

Russian lawmaker Alexander Khinshtein said the attackers had fled in a Renault vehicle that was spotted by police in Bryansk region, about 340 kilometers (210 miles) southwest of Moscow on Friday night and disobeyed instructions to stop.

He said two were arrested after a car chase and two others fled into a forest. From the Kremlin account, it appeared they too were later detained.

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

The suspect in the interrogation video was shown 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 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.

“Let’s be straight about this: Ukraine had absolutely nothing to do with these events,” Ukrainian adviser Podolyak said. “We have a full-scale, all-out war with the Russian regular army and with the Russian Federation as a country. And regardless of everything, everything will be decided on the battlefield.”

Putin, re-elected last Sunday for another six-year term, has yet to comment publicly on the attack. The Kremlin said he had held conversations with the leaders of Belarus and Uzbekistan in which all sides affirmed their willingness to work together to fight terrorism.

Gunfire 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.

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

ISIS 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 ISIS’s claim of responsibility for the shooting, a US official said on Friday. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity said Washington had warned Moscow “appropriately” in recent weeks of the possibility of an attack. The official gave no additional details.

Friday’s attack, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the Kremlin, happened two weeks after the US embassy in Russia warned that “extremists” had imminent plans for an attack in Moscow.

Hours before the embassy warning, the FSB said it had foiled an attack on a Moscow synagogue by ISIS’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 ISIS.

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

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

Read more:

US says it warned Russia of terror attack on ‘large gatherings’ early in March

Russia says concert hall attackers set fire to building

Afghan ISIS branch top suspect in Moscow attack

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