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Eight dead as fires flare up again in southern Russia

Eight people have died as forest and brush fires flared up again in Russia’s southern farmlands, burning down 532 homes and buildings, officials said on Friday.

“At the moment we have information on eight dead,” an emergency services spokesman was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying.

Strong winds overnight stoked fires that destroyed 532 buildings, including 400 homes, in about 20 villages in the Volgograd and Saratov regions, some 1,000 kilometres southeast of Moscow, emergency officials said.

“About 1,000 people are without shelter. Eighteen people have been injured,” the emergency ministry said in a statement.

But authorities said winds had subsided and most fires had been brought under control later on Friday.

The fresh fires came as Russia still had to assess the full cost of a record drought and wildfires that destroyed over a quarter of the country’s crop this summer — prompting a temporary ban on grain exports.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Friday pledged the two fire-struck regions one billion rubles (25.4 million dollars, 19.8 million euros) in emergency aid to rebuild after fire storms that have raged for months.

“This money should go to compensate citizens for their lost property,” Putin said in a meeting with emergency minister Sergei Shoigu, a transcript of which was posted on the government’s website.

On Thursday, Putin said Russia would not lift a grain-export ban before next year’s harvest, extending the major world producer’s embargo until at least mid-2011 as prices for basic food stuffs soared in Russian regions.

A state of emergency was also declared overnight in the Urals city of Tolyatti as fires devoured some 200 hectares (nearly 500 acres) of forest nearby, the city’s mayor, Anatoly Pushkov, was quoted by RIA Novosti as saying.

An emergency ministry spokesman quoted by the agency said the fire had been reduced to 86 hectares by Friday afternoon.

Temperatures have fallen in Moscow since an unprecedented heatwave this summer, but in recent days they have still topped 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in the southern regions.

Forest fires ravaged about a million hectares in Russia in recent months, destroying whole villages and leaving over 50 people dead, according to official tallies.

Fires also threatened several nuclear plants and engulfed Moscow in a thick cloud of smog causing death rates in the capital to double during the heatwave, according to official statistics.

An emergency alert was lifted on August 23 in the last of the seven regions affected by the fires.