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Thousands Protest After Deadly Russian Mall Fire; Putin Vows To 'Punish The Guilty'

People hold placards during a demonstration in Kemerovo on March 27. The signs say: "How many real victims?"; "Who is really to blame?"; "How much do your closed eyes cost?"; and "Corruption kills."
People hold placards during a demonstration in Kemerovo on March 27. The signs say: "How many real victims?"; "Who is really to blame?"; "How much do your closed eyes cost?"; and "Corruption kills."

Thousands of people have demonstrated in the Siberian city of Kemerovo, demanding answers and calling for the regional government's resignation as grief mixed with anger after a fire at a busy shopping mall killed 64 people, many of them children.

The crowd swelled from a few hundred people to several thousand filling a central square in the city, where President Vladimir Putin traveled early on March 27 and promised to punish the guilty in his first public comments on the disaster.

Protesters held signs with slogans such as "Corruption kills!" and "Resign!" and "Tell the truth!" while others questioned the official death toll in the fire that struck while families were spending Sunday afternoon at the mall on March 25.

ALSO READ: Kemerovo Fire: 'They Didn't Open The Fire Exit. Was There One?'

Demonstrators demanded the ouster of Kemerovo region Governor Aman Tyuleyev and a meeting with Putin, who extended his rule by six years with nearly 77 percent of the vote in a presidential election one week before the tragedy.

One poster called for the jailing of Putin and Tuleyev, who has been governor of the coal-mining region in central Siberia since 1997.

Amid accounts of missing children and desperate phone calls from a 11-year-old girl trapped with her two sisters in a movie theater in the mall, a list of victims posted at a headquarters set up by relatives indicated that 41 children were among the dead.

Putin, who had remained silent as the death toll mounted on March 26, after a brief written statement from the Kremlin the day before, traveled to Kemerovo early in the morning and laid flowers at a makeshift memorial outside the mall.

Echoing the words of angry residents, he blamed "criminal negligence" and "slovenliness" for the disaster and promised that those found responsible would be punished.

"What is happening [in our country]? This is not combat operations, not a sudden methane-gas leak in a mine. People came to relax, children [came]," he said in televised comments after a meeting with senior regional officials and emergency chiefs.

"We talk about demography and we are losing so many people. Why? Because of criminal negligence, slovenliness," said Putin, whose 18 years in power have been marked by deadly disasters that are frequently blamed on corruption and carelessness.

Meeting later with a group of local residents that included relatives of the fire's victims, Putin said: "Have no doubt: All those who are guilty will be punished."

He said that 100 investigators were on the scene, led by federal Investigative Committee chief Aleksandr Bastrykin.

Putin also visited injured victims in a hospital, but he did not meet with the thousands of protesters on the central square in front of the regional administration building.

Deputy regional governors Sergei Tsivilyov and Vladimir Chernov, as well as Kemerovo Mayor Ilya Seredyuk, came out of the building and promised to update the people about the situation and investigation.

Video from Putin's meeting with officials showed Tuleyev saying that the protesters numbered "about 200" and that they "are not relatives of the dead but constant troublemakers."

His remarks contrasted with condolences that poured in from around the world, undeterred by a spike in already high tension following what Western countries say was Russia's poisoning of an ex-spy and his daughter in Britain with a deadly nerve agent. Russia denies responsibility.

Pope Francis on March 26 sent a telegram saying he was praying for the victims and their families. Similar sentiments were sent from Brazil and China, as well as Britain, France, Germany, and the United States, which had just announced the expulsion of a total of more than 100 Russian diplomats in response to the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal.

While authorities have not raised the death toll from the fire since March 26, they said the number of people injured in the blaze rose overnight to 60, of whom 15 were hospitalized, TASS reported.

On March 26, Russian investigators said they found "glaring violations" of safety rules at the mall, such as blocked fire exits, that increased the human toll from the fire in Kemerovo, about 3,000 kilometers east of Moscow.

"Investigators have already received evidence pointing to glaring violations that led to such grave consequences," a statement from Russian Investigative Committee spokeswoman Svetlana Petrenko said.

In addition to long-standing safety violations, "it turns out that fire exits were blocked," Petrenko said. She also said that authorities are considering arresting a security guard "who turned off the alarm system upon receiving a signal about the fire."

The Investigative Committee said on March 27 that the cause of the blaze was most likely a short circuit, and a criminal investigation is under way.

Four people have been detained for questioning, including the heads of the company that managed the shopping center and the company that rented the space where the fire is believed to have started, the committee said.

Survivors and witnesses said that they heard no alarm and that many people found themselves trapped because exit doors were locked.

The fatal fire drew an outpouring of grief and sympathy from Russians and people abroad on social media. A photograph from Kemerovo showed dozens of people lining up in the snow to give blood.

Negligence, cost-cutting, corruption, and the thwarting of safety rules are blamed for causing or aggravating the human toll from blazes in Russia, where the death rate from fires is far higher than in most Western countries.

According to figures from the International Association of Fire and Rescue Services, there were 10,068 fire deaths in Russia in 2014 and 3,275 in the United States, whose population is roughly twice that of Russia.

With reporting by Current Time TV, Meduza, Dozhd, AP, Reuters, the BBC, CNN, TASS, Interfax and RIA Novosti