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Moscow deaths double in Russia’s ‘worst ever’ heat

The daily mortality rate in Moscow has doubled and morgues are overflowing amid an acrid smog caused by the worst heatwave in Russia’s thousand-year history, officials said Monday.

The smog from the peat and forest fires burning in the countryside around 100 kilometres (60 miles) outside the city has choked Moscow for days, seeping into apartments, offices and even the metro, and causing thousands to flee.

“In usual times 360-380 people are dying each day. Now it is around 700,” the head of Moscow’s health department, Andrei Seltsovsky, said in televised remarks, acknowledging that city morgues were filled almost to capacity.

Emergency services meanwhile reported about 557 wildfires were burning over 174,000 hectares (430,000 acres) in central Russia and the Moscow region, with flames also raging close to a nuclear reprocessing site in the Urals.

And Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced that record drought would slash the grain harvest in the leading wheat producer by about 10 million tonnes.

Television reports said the smoke reached Russia’s second city of Saint Petersburg and the Urals’ main city of Yekaterinburg was also veiled in smog.

Russia’s top meteorological official, Alexander Frolov, said the heatwave was the most severe in the country’s millennium-long history

“No similar heatwave has been observed neither by ourselves nor by our ancestors,” he told a televised news conference. “This is a completely unique phenomenon.”

More than 104,000 people — a record number for the current year — flew out of Moscow on Sunday, a spokesman for Russian state aviation agency Rosaviatsia, Sergei Izvolsky, told AFP.

The figure for the same day a year ago stood at around 70,000 people, he said.

Many of those who stayed pulled white and blue gauze masks over their faces to protect themselves from the haze, while national media accused authorities of covering up the true scale of the environmental disaster and related deaths.

State air pollution monitoring service Mosekomonitoring said Monday carbon monoxide levels in the Moscow air were 2.2 times higher than acceptable levels. They had been 3.1 times worse on Sunday and 6.6 times worse on Saturday.

Many Muscovites laid the blame for the catastrophe on the government, saying it was not doing enough to shield them from the smog, and bloggers shared survival tips ranging from producing oxygen at home to sleeping on the balcony.

“I don’t know how long we will last,” pensioner Rimma Zgal told AFP. “It’s impossible to sleep at night.”

Russian authorities declared a state of emergency in the Urals town of Ozersk, site of a major nuclear reprocessing plant Mayak, due to wildfires.

They have also been working to put out fires close to Snezhinsk, another town in the Urals and home to of one of Russia’s centres for its nuclear research programme. Officials said this fire had been contained.

Putin announced that Russia’s grain harvest for 2010 would be 60-65 million tonnes, Russian news agencies reported. Only last week it had been forecast at 70-75 million tonnes.

Russia has seen 10 million hectares of land destroyed in the drought and the new figure represents a massive fall compared with its 2009 harvest of 97 million tonnes.

The severity of the drought has seen states of emergency declared in 27 regions and dealt a major blow to Russia’s ambitions of ramping up its global market share over the next years.

Putin last week shocked international markets by announcing that from August 15 Russia would ban exports to keep prices down at home and ensure there was enough feed grain for its cattle herd.