Moscow chokes under smog as travellers trapped

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Thousands of air travellers were stranded and concerns grew over public health Sunday as Moscow choked in the worst smog in living memory, blown over the Russian capital from spreading wildfires.

Iconic buildings like the Kremlin towers and the city's wedding-cake Stalin-era skyscrapers were completely obscured from a distance by the acrid smoke, while neighbouring Finland said it was starting to feel the effects.

The wildfires have sparked a major crisis in central Russia, killing 52 people and sending authorities scrambling to protect strategic sites, including the country's main nuclear research facility.

Moscow's high-profile mayor Yuri Luzhkov, widely ridiculed in the press for refusing to return to the city from a summer break and handle the crisis, decided Sunday to come back after all, aides said.

They said he was interrupting treatment for a "sports injury".

Some 2,000 people were stranded at Moscow's Domodedovo international airport when major delays hit their flights after they had crossed passport control to the departures area with food running short, state television said.

Domodedovo, in the south of Moscow, was the airport worst hit with dozens of flights delayed Sunday. "Passengers need to be warned that delays are unavoidable," said Sergei Izvolsky of aviation committee Rosaviatsia.

The airport sent out requests to aviation companies to staff flight crews with pilots capable of flying in zero visibility conditions.

"We are located at the very epicentre of wildfires," Domodedovo spokeswoman Elena Galanova told AFP. "We're asking them to take complicated meteorological conditions into account."

Residents of Moscow have rushed to escape the smog-bound capital, with travel agents reporting package tours to destinations popular with Russians like Egypt, Montenegro and Turkey completely sold out.

"In the last week the demand for tickets from Moscow sold online has gone up by 20 percent," Irina Tyurina, spokeswoman of the Russian Union of Tour Operators, told the Echo of Moscow radio.

"For this weekend there are no places on aircraft to resort destinations and next weekend very few. The smoke has prompted this desire of Muscovites to leave the city," she said.

State air pollution monitoring service Mosekomonitoring said that carbon monoxide levels in the Moscow air were 3.1 times higher than acceptable levels as of Sunday afternoon. The day earlier they had been 6.6 times worse.

Moscow residents and tourists tried to protect themselves from the smog by donning medical masks or even just clutching wet rags to their faces. The Russian pharmacists association said there was no shortage of masks but new stocks were being brought in.

The wildfires were still blazing in central Russia, the emergencies ministry said, as weather forecasters said Russia's worst heatwave in decades would continue with temperatures of 39 degrees Celsius.

Some 554 fires were still covering 190,400 hectares of land in Russia, the emergencies ministry said, down just 3,000 hectares from the figure the day earlier.

"The situation with the wildfires in Russia remains difficult but a trend of improvement is being recorded," the emergencies ministry said on its website.

There were worries the flames could hit Russia's main nuclear research site in Sarov, a city closed to foreigners, but officials said the situation was under control and soldiers deployed there would be sent elsewhere.

Meteorologists in neighbouring Finland said air quality there had declined significantly in recent days thanks to the plumes of smoke from Russia.

"There has been an increase in dangerous particles (in the air), and there will likely be an increase in the health effects as well," Jaako Kukkonen, the head of the Finnish Meteorological Institute's air quality division, told AFP.

France on Sunday offered to send 120 firefighting personnel and a water bomber to Russisa to help.

© 2010 AFP

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