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Wildfires sweeping Russia kill at least 23

Forest fires sweeping across parts of Russia today killed at least 23 people and forced the evacuation of thousands in the hottest summer weather since records began 130 years ago.

world Updated: Jul 30, 2010 19:45 IST

Forest fires sweeping across parts of Russia on Friday killed at least 23 people and forced the evacuation of thousands in the hottest summer weather since records began 130 years ago.

Fanned by strong winds, raging fires ripped through woods and fields that have been scorched for weeks by a heatwave, incinerating hundreds of wooden houses.

"We don't know where to go," said Galina Shibanova, 52, standing outside her burning family home in the town of Maslovka in the Voronezh region, about 500 km (300 miles) south of Moscow.

"We called the emergency services, and not one person answered the phone," said Shibanova, a gold crucifix around her neck reflecting the nearby flames.

Health Minister Tatyana Golikova said that 439 people had been injured in Voronezh alone. She said 43 were in hospital in a serious condition.

Russia has been sweltering since June from a heatwave that has destroyed crops and pushed thousands of farmers to the verge of bankruptcy.

Drought in some regions of Russia, one of the world's biggest wheat exporters, has sent global prices soaring to year highs in July, putting US wheat futures on track for their biggest monthly gain since 1973.

The emergencies ministry said 238,000 people have been deployed to fighting peat and forest fires across 866 square km, an area about the size of Berlin.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin cancelled meetings in Moscow to fly to the Nizhny Novgorod region, where at least 540 homes were destroyed.

State television showed a crowd of women surrounding Putin, demanding to know if the government would pay to rebuild their houses.

"Don't worry, don't worry," said Putin. "I promise you the village will be fully rebuilt."

One woman said, "We are very thankful to you." Putin embraced her and kissed her on the cheek.

President Dmitry Medvedev ordered the military to help fight the fires and Putin warned that officials who failed to deal properly with the fires would be sacked.

Residents in Nizhny Novgorod had tried to fight the flames with buckets of water. State television channel Rossiya said 340 houses in one village in the region were destroyed within 20 minutes.

One woman sat weeping in an armchair, surrounded by toys, as her house burned down in front of her, a Reuters witness said. Another sat on a bench clutching religious icons saved from her burning house.

Emergencies Ministry officials refused to give a complete death toll but said five people, including one firefighter, were killed overnight in the Voronezh region and nine in Nizhny Novgorod.

Ryazan governor Oleg Kovalyov said on state television that three people had been killed in the region and a spokeswoman for the Prosecutor General's investigations unit in the Moscow region said that six people had died in the area.

Thousands were evacuated, including 900 patients from a hospital in Voronezh that was threatened by the flames and 1,200 children from summer camps in Ryazan, the emergencies ministry said.

In Maslovka, Alexandra Yuryeva stood in front of her burned out house in shock, clutching a brown chicken tightly to her chest, the only possession she had left.

"In my childhood there was the war, it's impossible, why can I not die in peace?" the 71 year old said, as tears streamed down her face.