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Russia Mourns 133 Killed in Deadliest Moscow Attack in Decades

(Bloomberg) -- Russia mourned the worst terrorist attack in Moscow for more than two decades as authorities said the death toll had climbed to 133 and rescue workers continued to search for victims.

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President Vladimir Putin told Russians in a televised address Saturday that the security services had captured four suspects who were trying to flee to Ukraine. While he didn’t accuse Ukrainian authorities of involvement in the attack at the Crocus City Hall on the edge of Moscow late Friday, Putin said a “window” had been prepared for the men to cross the border, without offering evidence.

Ukraine denied any role and called the attack a false-flag operation by the Kremlin. Islamic State earlier claimed responsibility in a Telegram message and posted a photograph of four men it said carried out the assault.

It’s the biggest single loss of life from terrorism in Moscow since Chechen separatists took hostages in 2002 at the Nord-Ost theater, where at least 170 people including the dozens of attackers died during a botched rescue mission. Friday’s assault took place days after Putin cemented his grip on Russia by claiming a fifth term with 87% of the vote in the presidential election.

Authorities canceled public events and tightened security across the country following the tragedy that shattered the illusion of security in Moscow that Putin has sought to cultivate in the more than two years since he invaded Ukraine. It recalled an earlier period of his quarter-century rule, when suicide bombings, most blamed on Islamists from within Russia or its neighbors, killed scores of people.

“ISIS bears sole responsibility for this attack,” Adrienne Watson, a spokesperson for the National Security Council at the White House, said in a statement Saturday. “There was no Ukrainian involvement whatsoever.”

She reiterated that the US shared information with Russia in early March “about a planned terrorist attack in Moscow” and pointed again to a public warning by the US Embassy in Moscow on March 7.

Putin said authorities had detained all those directly involved in the “barbaric” assault by gunmen who turned automatic weapons against people attending a rock concert at the Crocus City complex. He declared Sunday a national day of mourning and vowed to pursue anyone responsible for ordering and organizing the incursion.

The president spoke after the Federal Security Service announced that agents had detained the suspects in Russia’s Bryansk region, which borders Ukraine. The men planned to cross into Ukraine where they “had contacts,” the Interfax news service reported, citing a statement by the service known as the FSB that gave no more detail.

FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov reported to Putin that a total of 11 people had been detained, including the four suspects, according to a Kremlin statement earlier Saturday.

Russia’s Investigative Committee said Saturday the death toll was rising as emergency workers found more victims at the site of the attack. Officials earlier said at least 145 people had been wounded. Fire ripped through the massive venue after explosions were heard during the assault at Crocus City Hall, leading to a partial collapse of the roof.

The Moscow region’s governor said the rescue operation has ended, while the search operation is still underway, Russia’s TASS news reported late Saturday.

At a meeting with senior FSB officers on Tuesday, Putin hit out at “frankly, provocative statements” by Western officials this month warning of a possible imminent terrorist attack. “All this resembles outright blackmail and the intention to intimidate and destabilize our society,” the president said.

The US Embassy in Moscow issued a public warning on its website on March 7 that “extremists have imminent plans to target large gatherings in Moscow, to include concerts.”

“The United States strongly condemns the heinous terrorist attack in Moscow,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said earlier Saturday. “ISIS is a common terrorist enemy that must be defeated everywhere.”

The FSB said earlier this month it had prevented an attack on a Moscow synagogue by what it called an Afghan branch of Islamic State, Interfax reported.

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Islamist groups have targeted Russia in the past citing what they call anti-Muslim policies by the Kremlin. The seizure of a school in Beslan in the south of the country led to more than 330 fatalities, many of them children, in 2004. In 2010, twin suicide attacks in Moscow subway stations killed at least 40, while a suicide bombing killed 16, including the attacker, in the St. Petersburg subway in 2017.

Moscow has been largely insulated from the direct effects of Putin’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, which his spokesman Dmitry Peskov called “a state of war” for the first time on Friday. He later walked back the comment.

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“The obvious route for the Kremlin to spin this is that it’s something to do with the war in Ukraine,” said Charles Lichfield, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Center in Washington. “The immediate response could be more drone attacks and ballistic attacks, but they already increased before the terrorist attacks.”

In his daily video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy accused Putin of “simply trying to put the blame on somebody else.”

Russia continued strikes targeting several Ukrainian regions on Saturday. Four Russian missiles and 34 drones were fired at Ukraine overnight and air defenses shot down 31 Shahed drones in five regions, according to a Ukrainian statement on Telegram.

Moscow’s forces have stepped up missile strikes against Ukrainian cities and infrastructure in recent weeks, killing dozens of civilians. Early Friday, it unleashed the biggest missile and drone assault on Ukraine so far this year, focused on energy infrastructure.

At the same time, Ukraine has mounted a campaign of attacks inside Russia with its troops struggling on the battlefield amid delays in vital aid from the US and other allies. Drones have hit factories and oil refineries, while attackers in border regions have staged raids.

--With assistance from Kateryna Chursina and Jordan Fabian.

(Updates with NSC spokeswoman’s comments in sixth paragraph.)

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