Dozens ill after gas spreads in Russian store

Nearly 80 people suffered coughing and breathing problems on Monday after a gas was released in one of four apparently criminal attacks on a major chain of Saint Petersburg shops, officials in Russia’s second city said.

Terrorism was not suspected, a spokesperson for the Federal Security Service (FSB) said, with evidence instead pointing to a business-related criminal dispute timed to spoil sales in the commercially important pre-New Year’s holiday period.

Four huge Maksidom general hardware and household goods shops in Russia’s former imperial capital were targeted with devices consisting of boxes of gas capsules and clocks set to the current time, police said. No explosives were involved.

However, the substance, identified as the non-lethal gas merkaptan, was only released in two of the stores and caused harm in just one.

“The security services are inclined to believe this to be an act of hooliganism because so far there is no information that this could be a terrorist act,” the FSB spokesperson said.

Saint Petersburg’s police department said in a statement: “According to our information, the most likely explanation is a settling of accounts between competitors.”

“Maxidom’s management had on its own initiative contacted the police to tell them that they had received letters threatening to ruin their holiday sales,” the statement said.

All four Maksidom shops were evacuated and closed while police mounted an investigation. Ambulances and police could be seen positioned in snowy streets around the stores.

The gas had been identified as merkaptan, which is used to give odour to natural-gas supplies “and in some cases this gas can cause allergic reactions”, the FSB spokesperson said.

Merkaptan, which smells of garlic or rotten eggs, can in one form be an ingredient in self-defence weapons, police said.

Police said that all the victims were in one of the shops where the gas began to spread after the timer went off.
They had coughing and breathing difficulties. Fifteen required hospitalisation, but none were in serious condition.

None of the victims were shoppers because the stores had not yet opened for the day’s business, police said.

Earlier in the morning, another set of capsules had opened after a cleaner accidentally hit the box, but the gas did not cause harm.

In the other two Maksidom stores, the devices were discovered and made safe by security staff.

Russia, which has been fighting a brutal guerrilla war in the Caucasus region of Chechnya for most of the past decade, has suffered numerous large-scale terrorist attacks in the past few years, including the Beslan school siege and the downing of two airliners.

However, bloody business and criminal turf wars are also frequent.

On July, 21 people died in a fierce blaze at a shopping centre in the north-west city of Ukhta that police said was probably the result of business-related arson. Bombings and dozens of shootings—often unsolved—have been also been blamed over recent years on Mafia battles.

In December last year and in January this year, small bombs targeted the Bank of Moscow in the Russian capital.—AFP

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