Forest fires kill 29 in Russia heatwave

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Forest fires in Russia's worst heatwave in decades have killed 29 people, officials said Friday, as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited one of the worst hit areas to reassure angry residents.

People in a village in the central Nizhny Novgorod region where all 341 houses burnt down confronted Putin as he toured the area, many wiping tears from their eyes, television reports showed.

"We aren't asking for anything out of this world. We are just asking for a guarantee that we will be able to live here by winter," a woman resident said in footage shown on state Channel One television.

"By winter, all the houses will be standing. I promise you that your village will be restored," said Putin, adding that the standard compensation of 50,000 rubles (1,652 dollars) per household for loss of possessions would be increased to 200,000 rubles (6,614 dollars) per resident.

He then lent forward and embraced the woman.

Putin flew into the village of Verkhnyaya Vereya on Friday morning after more than 500 residents were left homeless by a fire.

In characteristic strongman style, he was shown facing residents, his sleeves rolled up and meeting with Emergency Minister Sergei Shoigu, where he ordered officials "not to get tied up in red tape."

Television reports showed a central street with all the houses razed to brick foundations and evacuated residents sheltering in a children's summer camp.

"I was at home, I couldn't breathe, the houses were burning, and I couldn't see anything," Valentina Britova, an elderly woman in a headscarf, told the Rossiya television channel.

Another resident, Yelena Vitushkina, recalled the evacuation: "The bus drove through the fire on both sides, it was blazing like in the cinema."

The bodies of 10 people were found in the Nizhny Novgorod region, a police spokesman told the Interfax news agency.

Five people, including one fireman, died in fires on Thursday in the central Voronezh region and more than 500 were left homeless, the emergency ministry said.

In a village in the Moscow region, a fireman and six residents died in a blaze that destroyed all 20 houses, while another fireman and two residents were killed in the Lipetsk region, Russian news agencies reported.

A total of four people have died in a village in the Ryazan region, an emergency ministry spokeswoman told the RIA Novosti news agency, bringing the apparent toll to 29.

Medvedev said in televised comments that the number of deaths was still unknown and the Emergency Ministry did not give a total toll for the whole of Russia.

The situation is critical for residents of villages in a country where few have comprehensive home insurance and many are dependent on their small-holdings to survive.

"We had a house, a barn, a banya, cattle. It has all burnt up. Where do we go? Where do we find the money to buy a house?" a tearful resident of the central Ryazan region asked in footage on Rossiya television.

Putin allocated five billion rubles (165 million dollars) to rebuild houses and said he would personally control the process, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agencies.

President Dmitry Medvedev ordered the defence ministry to help put out the forest fires, his spokeswoman said on Friday, quoted by Russian news agencies.

A record-breaking heatwave has seen the agriculture ministry declare emergency situations in 23 regions, with crops blighted by drought on around 10 million hectares of farming land.

In Moscow, smoke from smouldering peat and forest fires swathed skyscrapers with smog this week and Thursday saw temperatures hit 38.2 degrees celsius, the hottest recorded in the city since records began.

© 2010 AFP

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