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Russia: Arson Attack On Shopping Center Kills 24

At least 24 people died after a crowded shopping center caught fire yesterday in the town of Ukhta, in the northern Russian republic of Komi. Police are searching for two teenagers seen throwing a canister filled with flammable liquid into the mall's entrance. Prosecutors are examining terrorism, a settling of scores between criminal gangs, or hooliganism as possible motives for the attack.

Moscow, 12 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Ukhta, a quiet town 1,300 kilometers northeast of Moscow, is still in shock from the blaze that ravaged the two-floor building housing the Passazh shopping center.

The fire broke out yesterday during the busy lunch break and killed 24 people, 23 of whom were women. It also left 16 people injured, including a 7-month-old infant. Six people were hospitalized in intensive care.

Most victims were trapped inside the building by the metal bars on the windows -- they died of asphyxiation after the plastic paneling that covered the walls of the shopping complex caught fire.

"We were screaming for help; the fire had already come into our office," a saleswoman who survived the blaze told journalists. "We sell clothes for children and teenagers and all our goods had caught fire. We were shouting for somebody to take the window bars down because the fire was getting very close."

Russian television today showed footage of emergency workers scouring the rubble of the charred buildings for more victims.

Police and prosecutors initially said the blaze could have been caused by the accidental explosion of a gas cylinder or by a short circuit.

An arson attack, however, rapidly emerged as the most likely scenario after witnesses said they saw two teenagers throw a canister containing flammable material into the shopping center and flee the scene.

The remnants of two plastic bottles smelling of flammable fluids were found in the rubble.

Police have filed one charge of murder and another of arson.

Yurii Knyazev, a spokesman for the prosecutor's office for the Komi Republic, explained to reporters today in Ukhta what is known so far.

"Two teenagers ran into the commercial space of the first floor of the Passazh store in Ukhta and hurled an incendiary bottle. As a result, a fire broke out and spread very quickly because the walls were covered with synthetic material. A terrorist act, or simply teenagers' hooliganism or competition war -- there are different versions [we are working on]."
Several officials have evoked a feud between local criminal groups as a likely motive behind the attack.

Several officials have evoked a feud between local criminal groups as a likely motive behind the attack. Gang wars are not infrequent in Russia, but they rarely target ordinary people.

There has also been some speculation in the Russian media that the arson was a racially motivated attack aimed at Caucasian vendors working in the mall.

A spokesman for the Ukhta city administration, Vladimir Maseev, told RFE/RL's Russian Service that police are currently searching for the two teenagers.

"They (police) are trying to find those who might be involved -- the two teenagers," Maseev said. "The main task of the investigatory bodies is to collect testimonies of witnesses. We are now preparing announcements for local television and radio telling those who saw something, or know something, to contact us."

Both officials and those who escaped the shopping center alive are now saying more could have been done to save lives.

An angry saleswoman told journalists yesterday that the first ambulances to arrive on the fire scene had no medical equipment at all.

Yevgenii Serebrennikov, the deputy minister for emergency situations, said the shopping mall seriously violated fire-security regulations.

"The experts of the state fire inspectorate have serious remarks and serious grievances against the owner of this building, since basic fire-security requirements concerning evacuation were violated," Serebrennikov said.

Funerals for victims of the blaze will take place on 14 July, which has been declared a day of mourning in the Komi Republic.

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