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Fire Roars Through Izmailovo Market

A huge fire on Saturday roared through part of the sprawling Izmailovo outdoor market, which is popular among tourists looking for souvenirs and artwork, killing one woman and injuring at least two. Investigators said they suspect arson.

Still, it was business as usual Sunday at the market in eastern Moscow, with vendors hocking trinkets, Soviet kitch and shashlyk to crowds of tourists perusing hundreds of stands on 10 hectares stretching between the towering Izmailovo hotel complex and Izmailovsky Park.

The blaze erupted at around 1:30 p.m. Saturday inside a large wood and brick building toward the front the market. Smoke began pouring out of the building, and its towers and onion-shaped domes were quickly engulfed in flames, witnesses said. The fire then spread to several nearby wooden structures.

Firefighters extinguished the blaze after four hours, but not before about 10,000 meters of market space had been reduced to rubble.

All that was left of the building where the fire originated were its brick walls and the metal girders of its towers and domes.

One woman died from smoke inhalation, the city prosecutor's office said.

Another woman was hospitalized with serious injuries after she jumped out a window in the burning building, Itar-Tass reported. A second person suffered minor injuries.

"There was a loud popping sound in one tower," Nikolai Yevtikheyev, the prefect of Moscow's Eastern Administrative District, said on Rossia television. "After that the flames came quickly. It looks as if it was arson, but we will wait for the investigation."

The prosecutor's office has opened an investigation into suspected arson.

Vendors working at stands with a clear view of the blaze about 100 meters away said Sunday that they did not hear any sounds resembling an explosion, and that the flames broke out minutes after smoke started pouring out of one of the building's two towers. A cafe had operated on the fourth floor, right beneath the towers.

"I turned away from the smoke for a second, and when I turned back around, the building was already in flames," said a woman selling nesting dolls who refused to give her name. "I packed up all of my matryoshki, which were already warm from the heat of the fire. Everyone got their things together and left without panic."

A vendor from a stall peddling Soviet-era flags said he saw a man in a chef's uniform climb out of a fourth-story window during the fire and jump down onto the roof of a neighboring building.

"We had to leave, though, so we didn't see what happened to him," said the vendor, who also refused to give his name.

The blaze did not seem to faze any tourists.

Liz Watson, a U.S. tourist from Michigan, said she is staying at a hotel adjacent to the market but only learned about the fire from Euronews television. "They said it was a huge fire, and I came here today hoping that not everything had burned down," Watson said.

It was the largest fire in Moscow since an enormous blaze engulfed the Central Manezh Exhibition Hall near Red Square on March 14, 2004, the day President Vladimir Putin was elected to a second term.

The fire destroyed one of Moscow's most precious historical buildings, located on prime land next to the Kremlin.

City officials immediately ruled out arson and have blamed a short circuit.

The Izmailovo market has reputed links to the notorious Izmailovsky organized crime group, but Andrei Konstantinov, a leading expert on organized crime, said it was unlikely that Saturday's fire had anything to do with the group.

"Ten years ago the market may have been their primary source of business, but they have grown and branched out into different areas," Konstantinov said by telephone from St. Petersburg.

"If anything [the fire] was probably a way of 'setting up a relationship' between smaller businessmen at the market."

Konstantinov said arson was not as common a tactic of dealing with business competitors as it was a decade ago. These days, he said, it is a tactic more common in property disputes.

"If someone owns a building that is interfering with the plans of a more ambitious person, and they can't come to an agreement, then arson is a way to clear out the space," he said.

In December 2003, Mayor Yury Luzhkov announced plans to close down the market and replace it with a large shopping center.

Crime has long been associated with the Izmailovo market. In March 2004, Zaur Gelayev, who owned several shops at the market, was killed by unidentified assailants in a drive-by shooting on Izmailovskoye Shosse. Police said the killing was likely connected to Gelayev's business activities.

Six years earlier his father, Tair Gelayev, was murdered in a business-related killing, after which the son took over his business.

(The Moscow Times 28.iii.05)

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