Customers suffer from gas poisoning in St.Petersburg

More than 70 people were sickened after gas was released Monday in a St. Petersburg chain store and boxes with glass containers attached to wires were found in three other outlets of the same store. Police said they believed a commercial dispute or blackmail attempt was behind the incidents.

A spokesman for the Emergency Situations Ministry, Viktor Beltsov, said 78 people sought medical care and 66 of them were hospitalized. None of them were assessed as being in life-threatening condition, he said.

A spokesman for the St. Petersburg police, Vyacheslav Stepchenko, later said 15 people were hospitalized. It was not immediately clear if the discrepancy meant that some people had been released.

Stepchenko said the gas was preliminarily determined to be methyl mercaptan.

He also said that a custodian at a branch of the Maksidom home-supplies chain found a suspicious box before the store's opening and when she opened the box, she found ampoules attached to wires and a timer. The woman inadvertently broke one of the ampoules and noticed a repulsive smell, but apparently was not sickened.

All those who sought medical care were from another branch of the chain. Boxes with glass containers attached to timers were found in two other stores by employees, who carried them outside and covered them with buckets; police explosives experts defused them.

Officials of the store chain, which has outlets only in St. Petersburg and sells furnishings, home-repair material and other domestic articles, had told police that they had received threatening letters in recent weeks.

The letters threatened to disrupt the company's sales during the holiday gift-buying period. New Year's Eve is a traditional gift-giving day in Russia, the equivalent of Western celebrations of Christmas.

The incidents are under investigation, the AP reports.


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