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Deadly attack on Moscow concert hall shakes Russian capital and sows doubts about security

Shocked Russians brought flowers and teddy bears Saturday to the Crocus City concert hall on the outskirts of Moscow to pay their respects to more than 100 people who died in a grisly attack claimed by the Islamic State group.

Mourners hung flowers on fences and piled them on the ground a short distance from the concert hall where gunmen opened fire on a crowd and set off explosives that started a huge fire. Amid the grief, firefighters pulled bodies from the rubble and worked to put out the flames.

Videos shared on social media showed candles and flowers being laid in memory of the dead and wounded at monuments across Russia and at Russian embassies abroad.

The attack happened just days after Russian President Vladimir Putin cemented his grip on power by securing a record-breaking fifth term after harshly suppressing opposition voices during a highly choreographed election. The attack was the deadliest in Russia in years and left the concert hall a ruin.

The assault shattered nerves in Moscow and recalled memories of similar attacks that happened in the early years of Putin's presidency. Although Islamic State claimed responsibility, Putin pointed the finger of blame at Ukraine, where Russia is waging a war that has dragged into its third year. He cited no evidence for his claims.

As the death toll climbed and Putin ordered stepped-up security measures across the country, some Russians had questions.

“There are cameras everywhere that can trace opposition people going to a rally, and they are also stopped in the metro. But basic security did not work in a public event,” said Ekaterina in Moscow, referring to the crackdown ahead of the election. She, like several other Russians who spoke to The Associated Press, declined to give her surname because of security concerns.

“Does it mean that cameras are targeted on people who carry a book ... but you can carry a bomb or a Kalashnikov, and that will be OK?" she asked referring to social media footage that showed the assailants in the concert hall with automatic weapons.

Russian state television focused on condolences from foreign leaders and the outpouring of grief across Russia. It shared images of the suspects and pictured officials visiting hospitals and directing the cleanup operation.

“I woke up this morning and decided I definitely have to come here,” a man named Mikhail told the AP near the concert hall. “There is no word for such scum ... what they did is a terrible thing.”

“I couldn’t stop crying,” said Elvira, adding that she awoke Saturday and was “so depressed” by the rapidly increasing death toll.

Russian news agencies showed people lining up to donate blood. They said more than 3,000 people had already donated for victims of the attack.

Despite blanket coverage, state television lacked key information on the attack, which sent some pro-Western Russians looking elsewhere for details.

“It's ridiculous because it happened in my city, and I was asking friends who live abroad,” Ekaterina said.

Russia is no stranger to mass attacks with high death tolls.

During the early 2000s and 2010s, a series of suicide bombings and attacks unfolded across Moscow, including the 2002 Nord Ost theater siege, where 132 hostages and 40 Chechen hostage takers died after a mishandled Russian rescue response.

Most of the attacks were carried out by Islamist separatists from the North Caucasus, but in recent years, they have largely stopped. The relative absence of such violence has lulled Russians into a sense of security, even while the country's army fights in Ukraine.

“I am afraid that we may return to the times of the Chechen wars,” Mikhail Batsyn in central Moscow said, referring to apartment bombings that happened at that time. “I would really want for that to not happen and for this act of terror to remain a rare event.”

The fact that authorities were not able to stop the gunmen from rampaging through the concert hall, which reportedly had security measures in place, spooked many Russians.

On a social media chat group for a neighborhood south of the concert hall and shopping center, Russians discussed what precautions they would be taking in the coming days. Several suggested they would temporarily stop visiting shopping centers and busy places.

“I don’t want to go anywhere with a lot of people anymore,” Ekaterina said, adding that she had canceled plans to go to the theater Saturday.

Putin called the attack “a bloody, barbaric terrorist act” and urged “our comrades at the front and all citizens in the country" to come together in its aftermath.

In a nationwide address, he alleged that Ukrainian authorities tried to create a “window” for the suspects to escape across the border.

“Some of my friends believe in the idea of Ukrainian interference, but I can’t imagine that it could be the truth,” said Elvira and several other Russians who spoke to AP.

Instead, they questioned why the attack had not been thwarted by Russian security services.

“Why is it that they say that there were warnings from foreign security services, but our services were completely indifferent?” asked a woman in Moscow named Olga, referring to reports that Western governments had warned Russian officials that an attack was being planned. “How can this happen in 2024?”