Russia's Putin blames Volga boat deaths on 'greed'

14th July 2011, Comments 0 comments

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Thursday blamed "greed" and gross safety violations for a Volga River boat accident that killed up to 129 people in a heavy storm.

"So many deaths. So many children died," Putin said during an unannounced visit to the central Russian city of Kazan to which the boat Bulgaria was sailing when it sank on Sunday afternoon.

"It is horrible that we have to pay such a toll for this irresponsibility, such complacency, such greed," Russia's former Kremlin chief and potential 2012 presidential contender said in televised remarks.

Officials said they had pulled the bodies of 113 people -- including 27 children -- from the river by Thursday evening.

They had also expanded their search to nearly 200 kilometres (125 miles) downriver from the accident site after having recovered several bodies washed away by the wide river's heavy currents.

Russia's worst shipping accident in its post-Soviet history came on a top of a series of other disasters involving outdated equipment whose lifespans had long since expired.

The Bulgaria was built in then Czechoslovakia in 1955 and its sinking prompted Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to call for a river transport safety review -- the same instruction he had issued for planes after previous jet disasters.

But the latest accident was also accompanied by allegations of massive negligence on the part of both the tour operators and officials in charge of safety procedures.

The boat sailed with a faulty left engine and lacked a licence to carry tourists. It was also heavily overcrowded and included at least 25 people who never bought tickets or appeared on any registration lists.

Authorities have already arrested two officials and the captains of two vessels that allegedly passed the river wreck on Sunday without stopping to help.

Putin asked the head of his powerful Investigative Committee to prosecute the two captains for failure to render assistance to people in distress -- a charge that carries a maximum prison sentence of one year.

"How could this have happened," Putin lamented.

"How could a company without a licence for tourist operations, without a licence to use ships -- how did it manage to exist at all? Who sold these tickets? Who allowed them to be sold," he asked.

Putin served as president in August 2000 when the Kursk nuclear submarine suffered a massive series of explosions and sank in a Barents Sea tragedy that claimed the lives of 118 seamen.

That disaster left Russian authorities temporarily stunned and required several days for Putin to formally admit the scale of what happened on national television.

But he preferred to avoid the subject thereafter and once famously answered "it sank" when asked by CNN about what happened to Russia's most modern nuclear submarine.

Putin then promised to raise the Kursk in order to give the sailors a ground burial -- an unlikely operation that took a year and which Russia now plans to repeat again with the Bulgaria.

The second ship rescue will involve some of the Russian crew that raised the Kursk and require the help of two huge cranes that are due to move into position on Saturday evening.

"We expect that having raised the boat, we will be able to receive all the information required for the investigation," Transport Minister Igor Levitin told Putin.

"This is very important to us."

The boat's recovery operation is expected to last at least five days.

© 2011 AFP

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