MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday blamed the mall fire that killed at least 64 people in the Siberian city of Kemerovo on "criminal negligence" as he visited the site two days after the tragedy.
At least 64 people, many of them children, died when a blaze raged through the busy shopping centre in the industrial city on Sunday, one of the deadliest fires recorded in Russia over the past century.
Putin flew to Kemerovo Tuesday as questions swirled about the Kremlin's handling of the country's latest man-made disaster.
"What is happening here? These are not armed hostilities. This is not an unexpected release of methane. People, children came to relax," Putin told officials in Kemerovo after laying flowers at a makeshift memorial of flowers, stuffed children's toys and balloons near the gutted mall's facade.
"We are talking about demographics but are losing so many people. Because of what? Because of some criminal negligence, slovenliness," Putin said in comments released by the Kremlin.
"The first feelings when they speak about the number of victims and the number of dead children... one feels like wailing -- not crying," Putin said in televised remarks.
The Kemerovo region declared three days of mourning beginning Tuesday.
But many critics wondered why the Kremlin did not call a nationwide day of mourning and said national television channels did not pull entertainment programmes from their schedule fast enough.
Some Muscovites are planing a vigil in the city centre Tuesday evening and several Russian cities declared a period of mourning in solidarity with Kemerovo.
Investigators and witnesses said many people -- including children -- were burned alive because emergency exits were locked, notably at a multiplex cinema where children were watching cartoons.
The Investigative Committee said a criminal probe has been opened and that five people have been arrested including an official of the mall's security firm who is suspected of deactivating the public address system when the fire broke out.