Fire close to Russian nuclear centre grows

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A fire raging dangerously close to Russia's main nuclear research centre has grown in size, officials said Friday, as firefighters battled to cut back hundreds of blazes across the country.

The emergencies ministry said that over 500 fires covering just under 65,000 hectares of land were still ablaze across Russia, down 15,000 hectares from the day earlier, in a crisis that has already left 54 dead.

A huge concern to the authorities has been the fires burning close to the country's top nuclear research centre in Sarov and officials warned the area affected had expanded in size after a new fire started earlier this week.

Russian has sent thousands of firefighters to douse wildfires close to Sarov, a town in the Nizhny Novgorod region still closed to foreigners as in Soviet times.

"The fire which appeared in the eastern part of the nature reserve two days ago after lightning struck a pine tree has grown in size and now presents a certain danger," the head of the emergencies ministry for Mordovia, Major General Vyacheslav Kormilitsyn, said in a statement.

He did not specify further on the nature of the danger. The statement said the decision had been taken for round-the-clock rescue efforts.

While no blazes had been registered on the territory of the nuclear research centre itself, a nearby nature reserve in the neighbouring Mordovia region has been on fire for around a week.

"At the current time efforts are being made to contain the fire within its existing limits and localise it," he added, saying that 2,600 people and 200 pieces of equipment were being used to extinguish the blazes.

After a record heatwave lasting over a month, first significant rain for weeks poured down on Moscow overnight, with lower temperatures up to 32 degrees Celsius were expected later in the day.

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.

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 has been communicated orally," the source added.

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.

As the authorities fight the blazes around Sarov, there have also been fears the fires could stir up particles on land in western Russia 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

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