In charred Russia village, anger smoulders after Putin visit

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Standing amidst the fire-gutted homes and chunks of charred debris that are all that remain of the village of Verkhnyaya Vereya, local residents make no secret of the target of their anger.

They blame the Russian authorities over the destruction of their homes in wildfires by being too slow to react to quell the flames. And not even a visit by Russia's number one, Vladimir Putin, could persuade them otherwise.

This village about 500 kilometres (300 miles) east of Moscow, which has been entirely destroyed by the wildfires ravaging Russia, has come to symbolise public anger over how authorities have handled the crisis after Prime Minister Putin was dramatically confronted by residents here.

In a rare show of discontent in Russia, residents heckled the Russian strongman when he visited the village on Friday, accusing authorities of doing nothing to prevent their homes from going up in flames.

Russian state television has not shown the heckling in full, but a video posted on YouTube of angry women shouting at Putin in the village has been viewed more than 30,000 times.

As Russia continued to struggle against the blazes on Tuesday, residents of Verkhnyaya Vereya said authorities had failed to provide proper equipment to fight the fires, accused officials of downplaying the number of those killed in the disaster and raised doubts about receiving promised compensation.

In front of his devastated home, Pavel Charikov said that after seeing the flames approach the village last week residents contacted Russia's emergencies ministry "but they did nothing".

If local authorities "had reacted in time, none of this would have happened", he said, as a thick cloud of smoke continued to darken the air over the village.

"It all happened so quickly, the fire was moving forward at 25 metres per second, one man was burned as he sat on his tractor," Charikov recalled.

Officials say 11 people died in the village from the fires, but residents insist that several dozen were killed, perhaps up to 50.

"But they (the authorities) will never admit it," Charikov said.

"Look at this, everything has burned," shouted one young man standing in front of his ruined home, as another man used a tractor to tear down the charred metal poles of his fence.

"Everything burned in 20 minutes," said the man, who declined to give his name.

Residents of the village, who have been temporarily relocated to a children's holiday camp about 30 kilometres (20 miles) away, accused regional authorities of not providing resources to fight against the flames or to protect their homes.

"To put out the fires we would have needed specialised fire trucks, but nothing was ready, as usual," said Alexander Paziuk, who lives in the nearby town.

"I lost my four-by-four and my tractor which were parked here (in front of a burned house in Verkhnyaya Vereya). I've put my name on the list of victims -- we'll see what happens," he said.

Putin has promised 200,000 rubles (6,700 dollars/5,000 euros) in emergency assistance to every victim of the fires, but some residents of Verkhnyaya Vereya doubt they will ever see the money.

Many residents were careful, however, not to blame Putin directly, instead focusing their anger on local officials.

"Putin is not the guilty one, it's the local government, the regional governor," Paziuk said. Like other residents, he accused local authorities of having "done absolutely nothing" to avoid the disaster.

"All you have to do is look at Snovit," a village about 15 kilometres (10 miles) away, he said. "There, they had all the fire trucks and equipment necessary. And nothing burned."

© 2010 AFP

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