Rare displays of public anger were directed at Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday following a fire over the weekend that killed dozens of children in a Siberian shopping centre.
The outpouring of emotion since Sunday’s inferno has been stoked by revelations about breaches of safety regulations, including locked fire exits and a faulty alarm system.
Russian media have reported that 41 of the 64 dead were children.
Two employees of the Zimnaya Vishnya shopping centre in Kemerovo appeared in court to face charges of negligence and compromising security systems on Tuesday afternoon.
Nadezhda Suddenok, the manager of the shopping centre, and Alexander Nikitin, the employee responsible for the building’s fire fighting and alarm systems, appeared at a hearing in the Siberian city’s Zavodsky District Court on Tuesday afternoon.
They are among five people who have been detained in connection with failings that led to the tragedy, Alexander Batrykin, the head of the Russian Investigative Committee, said.
In comments carried on national television, Mr Bastrykin told Mr Putin on Tuesday that the building’s fire alarm system had been out of order since March 19 and that a guard had not turned on the public address system to tell people to evacuated.
Earlier in the day Mr Putin made an attempt to respond to the outrage by visiting some of the victims and the site of the burnt-out shopping centre in the city of Kemerovo. He vowed to punish those guilty of what he said was “criminal negligence.”
“This isn’t war, it’s not an unexpected methane explosion at a coal mine. People came to relax, children. We’re talking about demography and losing so many people,” Mr Putin said in a televised meeting with local officials.
“The first emotion when hearing about the number of dead and dead children is not to cry but to wail. And when you listen to what has been said here, speaking honestly, other emotions arise.”
Official pictures of Mr Putin’s highly-choreographed visit contrasted with the raw anger on display at an impromptu rally in the city centre where people carried photographs, in black frames, of children who were killed in the fire.
There were placards asking: “How many really died?”, “Who’s really guilty?” and “How much do your closed eyes cost?”
At least one sign demanded that Putin and local officials resign, and chants of “resign, resign, resign” were heard from the crowd.
Igor Vostrikov, a father of three whose children, wife and sister died in the blaze was involved in an angry exchange with the region’s deputy governor, Sergei Tsivilyov, who got down on his knees in an attempt to quieten the crowd.
Many of those present said they believed the number of victims to be much higher than officially acknowledged.
The authorities appeared to do everything they could to try and minimize the impact of the furious crowds. At one point hundreds of riot police were deployed to stop people from storming a local government building.
While Putin’s visit was reported in detail by state-owned television, there was little coverage of protests.
Aman Tuleev, the governor of Kemerovo Region, told the Russian president in a televised meeting that those demonstrating were “speculating on the grief of strangers.”
Shrines of flowers and candles have sprung up in cities across Russia in memory of those killed during what was Russia’s deadliest fire in a decade.
The Kremlin has declared Wednesday an official day of mourning.
Several Russian cities held rallies of mourning on Tuesday evening as anger and grief swept the country.
In Moscow, several thousand people gathered in silence to lay flowers and light candles at an improvised memorial on Pushkin Square, not far from the Kremlin.
A chant of “Fire Putin” was briefly taken up by some members of the meeting, but petered out.
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