Russian law enforcement officers stand guard near the burning Crocus City Hall concert venue following a shooting incident outside Moscow [Maxim Shemetov/Reuters]

Another witness, speaking to the Reuters news agency, also described the terror and panic inside the venue.

“A stampede began. Everyone ran to the escalator,” they said, declining to share their name. “Everyone was screaming; everyone was running.”

The attack, which left the concert hall in flames and its roof in a state of collapse, was one of the worst in Russia since the 2004 Beslan school siege in which more than 330 people, half of them children, were killed. The death toll appeared set to rise, according to unconfirmed reports.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said Friday’s raid was a “huge tragedy.” President Vladimir Putin was being given continuous updates about the situation, according to his spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

An ‘act of terrorism’

The prosecutor’s office said several men in combat fatigues had entered the concert hall, about 20km (12 miles) from the Kremlin and fired on those inside.

Repeated volleys of gunfire could be heard in videos posted by Russian media and on Telegram channels. One showed two men with rifles moving through the venue. Another showed a man in the auditorium saying the assailants had set it on fire, as repeated gunshots rang out in the background.

Others showed up to four attackers, armed with assault rifles and wearing caps, shooting screaming people at point-blank range.

Security guards at the concert hall were not armed, and Russian media said some could have been killed at the start of the attack.

Crocus City Hall engulfed in fire. Orange flames and clouds of black smoke are rising from the roof. The area on the ground is lit up with fire engines.
The concert venue, one of the most popular in Moscow, was engulfed in flames [Sergei Vedyashkin/Moscow News Agency via AP Photo]

ISIL claimed responsibility in a statement posted by its Amaq news agency, saying its fighters had attacked on the outskirts of Moscow, “killing and wounding hundreds and causing great destruction to the place before they withdrew to their bases safely”. The statement gave no further detail.

Russia has reported several incidents involving ISIL this month, with authorities saying they killed six alleged members of the group in a shootout in Ingushetia in the restive Caucasus region, and the FSB saying on March 7 it foiled an attack by Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), an Afghan affiliate of ISIL, on a Moscow synagogue.

The United States has also warned of the heightened threat. Several hours after the FSB announcement, the US embassy in Moscow issued a warning that “extremists” had imminent plans for an attack in Moscow. On Friday night, a US official said Washington had intelligence confirming ISIL’s claim of responsibility for the attack on Crocus City Hall.

Earlier, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said what had happened was a “bloody terrorist attack”. Investigators from Russia’s Investigative Committee, which deals with major crimes, said they had “opened a criminal probe under article 205 of the criminal code [terrorist act]”.

There was condemnation of the attack from across the world.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed his shock at the attack, which his spokesman said he “condemns in the strongest possible terms”, while the UN Security Council condemned what it called a “heinous and cowardly terrorist attack.”

French President Emmanuel Macron “strongly condemns the terrorist attack claimed by the Islamic State”, the Elysee Palace said.

“France expresses its solidarity with the victims, their loved ones and all the Russian people.”

Spain said it was “shocked” at events in Moscow, while Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni condemned what she said was an “odious act of terrorism” and expressed her “full solidarity with the affected people and the victims’ families”.

Russian officials said security has been tightened at Moscow’s airports, railway stations and on the metro system. The mayor cancelled all mass gatherings, while theatres and museums in the area, home to more than 21 million people, were ordered shut for the weekend. Other Russian regions also tightened security.

Engulfed in flames

The Kremlin did not immediately blame anyone for the attack, but some Russian lawmakers were quick to accuse Ukraine.

Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev wrote on the Telegram app that if those responsible for the attack turn out to be Ukrainian, “all of them must be found and ruthlessly destroyed as terrorists”.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, denied Ukraine’s involvement.

“Ukraine has never resorted to the use of terrorist methods,” he posted on X. “Everything in this war will be decided only on the battlefield.”

Rosgvardia, Russia’s national guard, said it was searching for the perpetrators of the attack, and its units were helping evacuate concertgoers from the burning building.

Rescue services had evacuated about 100 people from the basement of the Crocus City Hall, but there are still people on the roof, Russian news agencies reported.

Media reports said firefighters were trying to contain the fire, as plumes of black smoke rose above the venue into the night sky.

Helicopters were also deployed in an attempt to douse the flames that had engulfed the building.