Putin Under Fire
Russians have called President Vladimir Putin to resign over the fire even as dozens of countries have expelled Russian diplomats in protest against what they see as Russia’s hand in the poisoning of a former Russian spy in the UK.
The fire tore through the Winter Cherry shopping mall on Sunday, the first weekend of spring school holidays, trapping many families who had gathered at a children's play area and movie theater there. Russian investigators said the mall's fire exits were blocked and an alarm system turned off, and witnesses described panicked scenes as shoppers attempted to flee the building.
A video released by Putin's press office showed Putin laying roses at a makeshift memorial scattered with candles and toys, flanked by his security detail.
"What is happening here -- this was not a combat situation, not an unexpected methane outburst in a mine," he said.
"People came to rest, children. We talk about demographics and lose so many people because of what? Because of criminal negligence and carelessness."
The origin of the fire has yet to be determined.
The Kemerovo blaze comes at a delicate domestic political moment for Putin, who sailed to a re-election victory on March 18. As the scandal about the fire tragedy unfolded, western allies led by the EU and the US announced a coordinated expulsion of more than 100 diplomats in response to the poisoning of Russian former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Britain.
Putin did not meet with demonstrators in Kemerovo, who had gathered in front of the local administration office to call for a full probe into the fire. Members of the distraught crowd cast doubt on the official death toll and demanded that the Forensic Examiner's Office verify the number, Russia's state news agency Tass reported.
Footage from the scene showed riot police standing outside the municipal building as protesters chanted: "Resign!" and "Murderers!"