Putin blames 'criminal negligence' for fire that killed 41 children
Kemerovo (Russia) (AFP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday said "criminal negligence" was to blame for a Siberian mall fire that killed at least 64 people, including 41 children, after they found themselves trapped in the inferno because of locked doors.
A criminal probe has been opened and five people have been arrested over Sunday's blaze, which raged through the busy shopping centre in the industrial city of Kemerovo in western Siberia.
Two days after the tragedy, Putin visited a makeshift memorial of stuffed toys and flowers in the Kemerovo, saying he felt "like wailing" over the number of victims, in one of the deadliest fires recorded in Russia over the past century.
Investigators said the victims and dozens of animals were burned alive or suffocated because emergency exits were locked, notably at a multiplex cinema where children were watching cartoons.
Forty-one children were among the dead, Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported Tuesday citing a source in the regional emergencies services.
"What is happening here? These are not armed hostilities. This is not an unexpected release of methane. People, children came to relax," Putin told officials after laying flowers at a makeshift memorial of flowers, stuffed children's toys and balloons near the gutted mall's facade.
"We are talking about demographics but are losing so many people. Because of what? Because of some criminal negligence, slovenliness," Putin said in comments released by the Kremlin.
"The first feelings when they speak about the number of victims and the number of dead children... one feels like wailing -- not crying," he said.
- Three days of mourning -
Questions have swirled about the Kremlin's response to the country's latest man-made disaster.
Critics wondered why the Kremlin did not call a nationwide day of mourning and said national television channels did not pull entertainment programmes from their schedule fast enough.
Many on social media questioned the official death toll but officials said the figures were final, urging Russians not to trust unconfirmed reports.
Meeting with a group of locals, Putin said some 100 investigators were working at the scene, promising they would get to the bottom of what had happened.
"They will look at the entire chain," he said in televised remarks.
The Russian leader also visited victims at a local hospital including Ivan Zavarzin, 18, who jumped from the fourth floor during the blaze.
He told Putin that "many did not believe in the seriousness of what was happening during the first few minutes thinking it was a drill," the Kremlin said.
Putin also met three men who helped evacuate people.
The Kemerovo region declared three days of mourning beginning Tuesday.
Some Muscovites were planning a vigil in the city centre Tuesday evening and several Russian cities mourned in solidarity with Kemerovo.
Investigators and witnesses said people -- including children -- were burned alive or suffocated because emergency exits were locked, notably at a multiplex cinema where children were watching cartoons.
Multiple safety rules were violated, officials said.
Among those arrested over the fire is an official of the mall's security firm who is suspected of deactivating the public address system when the fire broke out.
Witnesses said the fire took hold very quickly, leaving many children separated from their parents.
The shopping mall also housed a petting zoo with dozens of animals who also perished in the blaze.
Originally built in 1969, the building was redeveloped several times and previously housed a factory.
The prosecutor general's office said that all of the country's shopping malls with entertainment areas will be checked for fire safety.
Pope Francis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Theresa May, EU President Donald Tusk and the US State Department all expressed their condolences.
© 2018 AFP