Putin faces rare public protests as anger grows over fire deaths
Rare displays of public anger were directed at Vladimir Putin yesterday following the fire over the weekend that killed dozens of children in a Siberian shopping centre.
The outpouring of emotion since Sunday's blaze was stoked by revelations about safety breaches, including locked fire exits and faulty alarms.
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 charged with negligence and compromising security systems yesterday afternoon.
Nadezhda Suddenok, the centre's manager, and Alexander Nikitin, the employee responsible for its firefighting and alarm systems, appeared at a hearing in the Siberian city's Zavodsky District Court.
They are among five people detained in connection with failings that led to the tragedy, Alexander Bastrykin, the head of the Russian Investigative Committee, said.
Mr Bastrykin told Mr Putin that the centre's fire alarm had been out of order since March 19 and that a guard had not turned on the public address system to tell people to evacuate.
Earlier in the day, the Russian President attempted to respond to the outrage by visiting some of the victims and the site of the burnt-out shopping centre.
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 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.
Igor Vostrikov, a father-of-three whose children, wife and sister died in the blaze, was involved in an angry exchange with Sergei Tsivilyov, the region's deputy governor, who got down on his knees in an attempt to quieten the crowd.
Many said they believed the number of victims to be much higher than officially acknowledged.
While Mr Putin's visit was reported in detail, there was little coverage of protests.
Shrines of flowers and candles have sprung up in cities across Russia in memory of those killed during what was the country's deadliest fire in a decade.
The Kremlin has declared today an official day of mourning.
In Moscow, several thousand people laid flowers and light candles at an improvised memorial on Pushkin Square, not far from the Kremlin. A chant of "Fire Putin" was briefly heard.