Russia says fires abating close to nuclear site
Moscow: Russia said on Monday wildfires raging close to a secret nuclear site had been controlled, amid accusations it sought to cover up the risks from fires in forests contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
With the country's worst ever heatwave showing signs of relenting, the authorities faced new weather problems as a violent storm ripped through northwest Russia overnight and headed for Moscow.
The peat and forest fires in the countryside of central Russia have killed over 50 and also raised concerns about the security of potentially dangerous strategic sites located in the vicinity of the fires.
A major worry has been fires in a nature reserve close to Russia's main nuclear research centre in Sarov -- a town closed to foreigners as in Soviet times -- but the authorities said they had taken a major step to resolving the crisis.
"The situation is stable and controllable. There are no fires on the territory of Sarov," said the head of the emergencies ministry's branch for the Volga region, Igor Panshin.
"The remnants of fires in the nature reserve southeast of its boundary have been extinguished," he said in a statement.
"If the positive dynamic continues then a withdrawal of the contingent in Sarov will begin in the coming week."
The Emergencies Ministry said that nationwide, the area affected by wildfires had been reduced by another 8,000 hectares to 45,800 hectares. At the peak of the crisis, an area of almost 200,000 hectares were on fire.
But as the fires eased, a new controversy blazed as allegations emerged that Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu had personally ordered the blocking of an official website which warned of radioactive dangers from the wildfires.
The Roslesozashchita state forest watchdog had warned that hundreds of hectares of land had burned in the Bryansk region of western Russia, an area still contaminated by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Deputy director of the watchdog, Alexei Bobrinksy, said the site has not been working since Friday afternoon.
The Kommersant daily said the company hosting the site, Multikhost, had been telephoned at the weekend by the authorities and ordered to block the site. However the company insisted it had not blocked the site.
The paper said that Shoigu had personally ordered that the site was "sorted out" as it had published "false information about the fires in the Bryansk region."
"The fires threaten Russia with a second Chernobyl," said the Trud daily angrily, saying the situation could have proved lethal under certain wind conditions if the Bryansk fires climbed higher into the trees.
"The authorities are starting to hide information about the forest fires," it added.
The fires and heatwave have triggered a major crisis in Russia affecting nearly all areas of life, in particular the agriculture industry which has seen one quarter of Russian crops destroyed.
Russia at the weekend implemented a ban on the export of grain which has proved highly controversial and forced up world wheat prices to two-year highs.
First Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov on Monday defended the ban in an interview with the government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta, saying it was necessary to "preserve (Russia's) leading position long term on the international grain market”.
Temperatures in Moscow on Monday morning were a pleasant 25 degrees Celsius, well down on the highs of almost 40 degrees seen over the last days, with little sign of the smog from the wildfires that had blanketed the city for days.
Moscow was braced for torrential rain and high winds later after tens of thousands in northwest Russia were left without electricity overnight when a storm ripped through the region.