Russia battles wildfires as death toll rises

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The death toll from the worst summer wildfires to hit Russia in a generation has risen to 34, officials said Monday, as firefighters battled to prevent the flames claiming more lives and property.

Amid unusual public criticism that the authorities were slow to react to spreading fires last week, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was due to hold an emergency meeting with governors of the worst affected regions.

"According to current information, 34 people have been killed as a result of the fires," Vladimir Stepanov, the head of national centre for crisis management at the emergencies ministry, said on state television.

The previous death toll had stood at 30. It appeared that the increase in the death toll resulted from the discovery of more bodies around the region of Nizhny Novgorod on Sunday.

"In the last 24 hours the general dynamic is that the general number of fires is decreasing," Stepanov added.

"The main task for us today -- not allowing fires appearing in inhabited areas and prevent the deaths of people -- has been fulfilled."

The emergencies ministry has deployed hundreds of thousands of workers along with 2,000 members of the armed forces to fight a disaster described by President Dmitry Medvedev as one that happens only "every 30 or 40 years."

The worst-hit regions have included the area around the city of Nizhny Novgorod in central Russia, Voronezh in southwestern Russia as well as the Moscow region itself.

At least 1,875 houses have been destroyed in fires, leaving more than 2,000 people homeless, the regional development ministry said Sunday, with around about 128,000 hectares (316,000 acres) of land on fire.

But the authorities have insisted they now have the situation under control and Stepanov said 265 inhabited areas were "saved" from fires over the last 24 hours.

He said that on average 300 fires were appearing every day but 95 percent of them were extinguished within a 24-hour period.

Moscow itself was again blanketed Monday in a heavy smog generated from peat fires burning in the countryside, with the centre of the city permeated by a smell of smoke and the tops of skyscrapers invisible in the early morning.

Putin, who has led the response was to the disaster and visited some of the affected areas, was due to meet regional governors at 1000 GMT for what could prove to be a prickly meeting.

The Russian strongman, rarely criticised in Russia, found himself harangued by angry victims of the fires when he visited the Nizhny Novogorod region and later himself slammed local officials for their slack response.

"The federal government showed it was not ready to fight the fires. The local authorities, with their small budgets also could not cope," said the opposition Novaya Gazeta newspaper.

"The victory of centralisation and the 'vertical of power' smells of flames," it added, referring to one of the main slogans of Putin's rule.

A country notorious for its bitterly cold winters, Russia is enduring its severest heatwave for decades which has seen all-time temperature records tumble throughout July.

Forecasters have warned there is no chance of the heatwave relenting for the moment, with temperatures for between 35-42 degrees Celsius (95-107.6 degrees Fahrenheit) expected in Moscow and central Russia over the next days.

Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov meanwhile urged local authorities not to allow people to enter forests, where their presence could create the risk for further fires, Interfax reported.

© 2010 AFP

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