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Putin Promises Payouts For Russian Plant Victims

Nataliya Vasilyeva THE ASSOCIATED PRESS - August 21, 2009 MOSCOW - Prime Minister

Nataliya Vasilyeva THE ASSOCIATED PRESS - August 21, 2009

MOSCOW — Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited the site of the Siberia power plant accident Friday, acknowledging there's little chance of finding any of 49 missing workers alive and promising compensation for their families.

Putin urged RusHydro, the owner of the massive Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric plant, to compensate the families of the dead and missing equally. RusHydro has already pledged to pay 1 million rubles ($31,300) to the families of the 26 confirmed dead.

"We can see what's happened — let's not pretend," Putin told officials in televised remarks after touring the plant, where a powerful explosion on Monday blew out walls and caused the turbine room at Russia's largest power plant to flood.

Putin promised to match the company's payouts with federal money to help families affected by this "huge tragedy."

The Emergency Situations Ministry said the confirmed death toll reached 26 after several more bodies were discovered overnight in the destroyed turbine room.

"I've just talked to the rescue workers. They have seen it all but say that nerves fail them (here)," Putin said.

More than 1,000 workers were searching the huge plant that straddles the Yenisei River, although there is little hope anyone could still be alive after four days in near-freezing waters.

The cause of the accident is unclear but officials cited a faulty turbine and a rise of pressure in the pipes as possible triggers.

Authorities have ruled out terrorism as a cause. However, a Chechen rebel group claimed Friday that it had sabotaged the plant, placing an explosive in the turbine room.

The statement from the group calling itself the Riyadus Salikhin Martyrs' Brigade was posted on a Web site sympathetic to Chechen rebels. The claim could not be independently confirmed and there has been no proof of the group's involvement in any big industrial accident in recent years.

Following Friday's rebel claim, federal investigators issued a statement reaffirming that experts had checked the plant for traces of explosives and found none.

Chechen rebel groups have a history of claiming responsibility for most serious industrial accidents in Russia, but Russia's aging infrastructure has been seen as the cause.

Putin said earlier that the Sayano-Shushenskaya accident highlighted the need to invest in critical parts of Russia's crumbling infrastructure and called for Russian workers and companies to pay closer attention to safety standards.

"In our country ... discipline in dealing with technology is very low," he said.

The plant supplies about 10 per cent of Siberia's energy needs, including several major aluminum smelters belonging to Rusal, the world's largest aluminum producer. It has been shut down since the accident and could be out of service for a significant time. Repairs are estimated to take from two to four years.

Siberian electricity prices at local stock markets have skyrocketed in the wake of the accident. Putin warned about "an inevitable increase" but also suggested the government would start to regulate wholesale electricity prices to manage the hike.

Russian bloggers and some newspaper columnists have criticized the disaster and the rescue efforts. The country's top emergency response official, Sergei Shoigu, lashed out at bloggers, saying they were spreading panic and misinformation.

"These guys need to be punished severely," he told the government newspaper Rossisskaya Gazeta.

Regional prosecutors already have confiscated the computer, mobile phone and apartment key for local blogger Mikhail Afanasyev, accusing him of slandering officials and rescuers.