Storm drenches parched Moscow but health alarm remains
The first significant rain for weeks poured down on Moscow on Friday but alarm remained even as the authorities were downplaying the health impact of the record heatwave on the Russian capital.
Forecasters said the heatwave that has left tens of thousands of hectares of land ablaze and destroyed a quarter of Russian crops would continue in the next days, albeit with slightly lower temperatures.
Despite signs of public frustration with the authorities, a heavy police presence ensured only a few dozen activists turned out for a protest against the Moscow mayor's handling of the crisis, several of whom were then arrested.
A dramatic storm with rain throughout the night hit Moscow. Temperatures up to 32 degrees Celsius were expected later in the day -- hotter than usual but still cooler than temperatures edging up to 40 degrees recorded earlier.
There was little sign of the smog from the wildfires that had blighted the Russian capital in the last week but new reports emerged accusing the authorities of hiding the true health toll from the heatwave.
Moscow's top health official has already said the mortality rate had doubled in the heatwave, with hundreds more deaths every day than in usual periods. However the federal authorities have refused to confirm these figures.
The Interfax news agency quoted Moscow doctors as saying they had been forbidden to give "heatstroke" as a cause of death to keep a lid on the statistics.
"We received the order not to use the diagnosis 'heatstroke'. We are told that the statistics for heatstroke were mounting up," one doctor told the news agency.
"There was no official order, everything is has been communicated orally," the source added.
News website lifenews.ru even published a picture of what it said was an informal order pinned up in a Moscow hospital saying: "Attention! Do not use the diagnosis heatstroke!"
"This is done so that the statisics, including cases of death connected with the heatwave, do not mount up," a medical source told the website. There was no immediate official confirmation.
Several dozen activists gathered outside Moscow's city hall Thursday evening for an unsanctioned protest against mayor Yuri Luzhkov, where they were quickly surrounded by riot police.
Around 20 people were arrested including veteran human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov and Left Front leader Sergey Udaltsov, who was prevented from joining the demonstration.
Luzhkov controversially remained on holiday as the city's health crisis mounted, only returning on Sunday.
With the full impact of the drought and fires becoming clear, President Dmitry Medvedev said one quarter of Russia's crops had been lost and many farms were now on the verge on bankruptcy.
Russia has banned grain exports and US government slashed its 2010-11 global supply forecasts by around 2.5 percent from last month's estimates, on lower than expected production from the former Soviet Union.
Russia has been stepping up efforts to halt wildfires near its main nuclear research site in the town of Sarov. There have also been fears the fires could stir up particles on land still contaminated by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Fires have also blazed in neighbouring Ukraine, with the emergency services working to put out a two-hectare (five-acre) peat bog fire 60 kilometres (35 miles) from Chernobyl.
But the authorities have said the situation is under control and urged against panic.
© 2010 AFP