KEMEROVO, Russia -- The first funerals have been held for victims of a devastating fire at a shopping center in the Siberian city of Kemerovo, as Russia observed a day of mourning for those killed -- many of them children -- in the March 25 blaze.
Deputy Emergency Situations Minister Vladlen Aksyonov said on March 28 that no more reports of missing persons had been received and that the death toll stood at 64, including at least 41 children.
"No one is missing. We have no information about any families unaware of the whereabouts of their members," Aksyonov said. "The death of 64 visitors of the Zimnyaya Vishnya [shopping center] has been confirmed."
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The comments come as Russian President Vladimir Putin said on March 28 following a visit to the site that the authorities must strive to prevent any “panic” by the public and “fake news, including "from abroad,” from being spread on social media as they conduct their investigation into the disaster.
"Unfortunately, we see that fake stories are coming through social media, including from abroad, in order to sow panic and distrust and pit people against each other," Putin told federal Investigative Committee chief Aleksandr Bastrykin.
"We definitely must not allow this in any circumstances," the state-run RIA Novosti news agency quoted Putin as saying.
The Russian president also ordered that inspections be conducted at shopping and entertainment centers throughout the country for any violations of safety requirements.
"It is essential to ensure this should not be treated as a temporary campaign, but safety must be guaranteed," he said.
Echoing the words of angry residents, Putin blamed "criminal negligence" and "carelessness" for the disaster and promised that those found responsible would be punished.
Deadly fires and other disasters are often followed in Russia by a flurry of safety checks and other activities.
Authorities said the number of people injured in the blaze rose to 76, with 25 hospitalized. Of the 27 dead who have been identified, at least 13 were children, authorities said. They said identification of other victims may require DNA and could take two weeks. Authorities have so far released 21 bodies for burial.
Three members of the Agarkov family -- a grandmother and her two grandchildren -- were buried in one grave, while farewell ceremonies continued in the city's three churches. Local authorities announced funerals for at least 13 victims of the fire on March 28.
Thousands of people have been bringing flowers and stuffed toys to makeshift memorials across the country, and flags flew at half-staff after President Vladimir Putin declared March 28 a nationwide day of mourning.
It comes after thousands of angry demonstrators protested in the center of Kemerovo on March 27 demanding a full probe into the March 25 fire, and calling for the ouster regional Governor Aman Tuleyev and a meeting with Putin.
Tuleyev remains in place, but Russian news agencies including state-run RIA Novosti and TASS quoted unnamed sources as saying on March 28 that the governor had fired a deputy, Aleksei Zelenin, and a senior official in his administration, Nina Lopatina.
Meanwhile, a court in Kemerovo ordered the owner of the shopping mall, Nadezhda Suddenok, jailed for a two-month pretrial period that can be extended.
Suddenok is one of five people who have been detained by investigators, who opened a criminal case on suspicion of involuntary manslaughter, violation of fire safety regulations, and providing unsafe services in connection with the fire.
The federal Investigative Committee said on March 27 that four of them, including Suddenok, had been charged.
In court, Suddenok offered her "heartfelt apologies" to the victims' families. "I am a mother myself and I understand perfectly well what the people who are now burying their children are now experiencing," she said. "I understand perfectly well what they are feeling. But I do not want to blame myself for this, I do not want to."
At the March 27 demonstration, the crowd swelled from a few hundred people to several thousand, filling a central square in Kemerovo, a city of more than half a million people 3,000 kilometers east of Moscow where Putin traveled on March 27 and promised to punish the guilty in his first public comments on the disaster.
Rallies in solidarity for the victims of the mall blaze were held in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other Russian cities later in the day. In the Russian capital, people laid flowers on Pushkin Square at the statue of the famous Russian poet.
Talking to reporters in Moscow on March 28, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment the Kemerovo authorities' response to the demands of the demonstrators.
"The investigations are under way and therefore any information from the scene cannot considered as [reliable] information at this point," Peskov said.
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny accused the authorities of blaming outside forces instead of focusing on official corruption as the cause of the disaster.
"These people...were killed by corruption, and for me that is as clear as day," he wrote on his blog, accusing fire-safety officials of regularly "extorting bribes."
Putin's 18 years in power as president or prime minister have been marked by deadly disasters that are frequently blamed on corruption and carelessness.
Critics say that while Putin has taken numerous steps to strengthen the Kremlin's grip on Russia, he has been unable to establish the kind of control that could curb the graft and negligence that can lead to accidents or increase their human toll.
Putin recently extended his rule by six years with nearly 77 percent of the vote, according to official results from a presidential election one week before the tragedy.
Tuleyev, in a March 28 video address, said that "certain forces are trying to prompt people to clash with each other."
Tuleyev claimed his niece was among the victims of the fire. He also said local authorities received an anonymous phone call claiming that a coal mine near Kemerovo was booby-trapped, implying the call was a hoax.
Tuleyev, who has been governor since 1997, also said that local authorities received an anonymous phone call claiming that a coal mine near Kemerovo was booby-trapped, implying that the call was a hoax.
"Why are they doing this? To make people angry," Tuleyev said, blaming the call on unidentified "forces" trying to "destabilize the situation."
Investigators have said that at the mall in Kemerovo, fire exits were blocked, the public address system had been shut off by a guard, and the fire alarm system was out of service.
Meeting later with a group of local residents that included relatives of the fire's victims, Putin said, "Have no doubt: All those who are guilty will be punished."
With reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service, Current Time TV, TASS, Interfax and RIA Novosti