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By Polina Ivanova and Andrew Osborn
KEMEROVO/MOSCOW (Reuters)

Funerals began in Russia on Wednesday for the 64 people, most of them children, whose deaths in a fire at a Siberian shopping mall have roused public anger over official corruption and incompetence

Flags on government buildings across Russia flew at half mast, state TV and radio stations removed light entertainment shows from their schedules, and lawmakers in Moscow observed a minute of silence.

The fire at the Winter Cherry mall in the city of Kemerovo on Sunday killed 41 children. Investigators have not confirmed the cause of the fire, but the high death toll has been blamed on reported shortcomings in the mall’s safety procedures.

 

Flags are lowered at half-mast on the day of national mourning for the victims of a shopping mall fire in Kemerovo in St. Petersburg
Flags of Russia and Saint Petersburg are lowered at half-mast on the day of national mourning for the victims of a shopping mall fire in Kemerovo on the roof of the Mariinsky Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov

 

At a funeral service in an Orthodox church in Kemerovo, about 3,600 km (2,200 miles) east of Moscow, women wailed as prayers were sung over three coffins, including two small caskets for children.

Sergei and Natalia Agarkov buried two school-age children, Konstantin and Maria. The children’s grandmother, Nadezhda Agarkova, was also killed.

All three had gone to see a film at a cinema on the top floor of the shopping centre and had been unable to get out of the auditorium when the fire broke out. Russian media reported the doors had been locked.

 

People gather to commemorate the victims of a shopping mall fire in Kemerovo on the day of national mourning in central Moscow
People gather to commemorate the victims of a shopping mall fire in Kemerovo on the day of national mourning in central Moscow, Russia March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

 

“This tragedy is made even worse by the fact that children became victims of the blaze. Great grief is upon all of us and there are no words that would express our common pain,” the priest told the mourners, who held candles and repeatedly crossed themselves.

President Vladimir Putin, visiting the disaster scene on Tuesday, promised angry residents that those responsible for what he called criminal negligence would be punished and declared Wednesday a national day of mourning.

Putin on Wednesday ordered similar shopping centres across Russia to be inspected to make sure they were well prepared in the event of a fire.

 

An employee lowers a flag to half-mast on the day of national mourning for the victims of the Kemerovo shopping mall fire in Stavropol
An employee lowers a flag to half-mast on the day of national mourning for the victims of a shopping mall fire in Kemerovo on the roof of the headquarters of a local government in central Stavropol, Russia March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko

 

Some victims’ relatives say they believe a cover-up is under way and that the death toll is higher than 64, something Putin has denied. Investigators on Wednesday said they had opened a criminal case into a Ukrainian prankster who they said had spread disinformation about the death toll.

 

ANTI-GOVERNMENT PROTEST

Investigators say their main theory is that an electrical short circuit caused the fire.

Almost all the bodies have been recovered, many of which could be identified only via DNA testing. A further 14 people remain in hospital.

 

People gather to commemorate the victims of a shopping mall fire in Kemerovo on the day of national mourning in central Moscow
People gather to commemorate the victims of a shopping mall fire in Kemerovo on the day of national mourning in central Moscow, Russia March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

 

Russia has rigorous fire safety rules and a system of regular inspections, but these efforts are undermined by endemic corruption which affects many aspects of life in the country of 144 million people.

Moscow reduced the number of inspections for certain businesses after complaints that inspectors were extorting bribes in exchange for turning a blind eye to violations.

But some business owners in Kemerovo said this meant that safety shortcomings were not being identified.

 

A flag with the coat of arms of Russia is lowered at half-mast on the day of national mourning for the victims of a shopping mall fire in Kemerovo in central Moscow
A flag with the coat of arms of Russia is lowered at half-mast on the day of national mourning for the victims of a shopping mall fire in Kemerovo at the Kremlin in central Moscow, Russia March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

 

The governor of the region where the fire took place, Aman Tuleyev, sacked two senior officials on Wednesday, the RIA news agency reported.

Investigators have also detained and charged five people over the fire, including a security guard who they accuse of turning off the public address system and the mall’s manager who is accused of violating fire safety regulations.

At least one vigil held in memory of the dead in cities across Russia has turned into an anti-government demonstration.

 

 

At a Moscow gathering on Tuesday attended by several thousand people, including opposition leader Alexei Navalny, protesters held banners reading “Bribes kill children” and “We demand a real investigation”.

Some chanted “Putin – resign!“, ten days after Putin secured a comfortable election win for another six-year term in office.

 

(Reporting by Polina Ivanova in Kemerovo; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Christian Lowe and Raissa Kasolowsky)

 

A Russian state flag is lowered at half-mast on the day of national mourning for the victims of a Kemerovo shopping mall fire in central Moscow
A Russian state flag is lowered at half-mast on the day of national mourning for the victims of a shopping mall fire in Kemerovo, with the coat of arms of the Soviet Union seen on the facade of the building of the lower house of parliament, State Duma, in central Moscow, Russia March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin