Russia forest fires leave 23 people dead amid heatwave

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At least 23 people are now reported to have died in forest fires which are raging in central Russia as a heatwave grips much of the country.

More than 2,000 people have been left homeless and President Dmitry Medvedev has ordered the armed forces to help fight the flames.

He also ordered ministers to visit affected regions to assess their needs.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited a Volga village where all 341 homes were destroyed by flames.

He told distressed residents of Verkhnyaya Vereya that the village would be rebuilt before winter.

"I would like to say to you that you are not being forgotten," he said, promising 200,000 roubles (£4,200) in compensation for each person affected. "All the houses will be built by winter. I promise to you that the village will be restored."

Earlier, the government earmarked 25bn roubles for the national emergency effort.

Image caption,
Vladimir Putin visited a village where all of the houses were destroyed

Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu says that overall more than 2,000 people have been made homeless in the Central and Volga federal districts.

Heavy rain was forecast for Moscow after a record temperature of 39C (102F) on Thursday and warnings from health experts of pollution levels 10 times higher than normal safety limits.

A thick layer of smoke from peat bogs burning in the surrounding region was beginning to clear as strong winds and lightning storms were forecast.

But temperatures in Moscow are set to rise again to 37C early next week.

Wheat crop lost

Russian internet users have been complaining bitterly on forums that the fire-fighting effort has concentrated on Moscow at the expense of other regions.

"Russia is on fire and nobody is putting it out," reads one comment on the news website.

"All the effort has been thrown at putting out the peat bogs around Moscow."

Six residents and a fire-fighter died in the Moscow region on Thursday evening when the village of Mokhovoye was burned.

In the central region of Voronezh, five people, including a fire-fighter, were killed and 120 injured as fires swept through woods and fields already parched by the month-long heatwave.

Other deaths were in the Nizhny Novgorod and Lipetsk regions.

"We don't know where to go," Galina Shibanova, 52, told Reuters news agency as she stood outside the charred remains of her family home in the town of Maslovka, 500km (300 miles) south of Moscow.

"We called the emergency services and not one person answered the phone."

Planes have been dumping water and fire-fighters and volunteers have been working on the ground across the central part of Russia.

It is estimated that a fifth of Russia's wheat crop has now died because of the lack of rain in what is thought to be the country's worst drought for more than a century.

Hundreds of people have drowned over the past two months in an attempt to cool off in the record heat, with 170 such deaths recorded in Moscow alone, medical sources told Interfax news agency.

The high toll has been partly blamed on drunkenness and the lack of safety equipment on beaches.

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