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Moscow (AFP) July 16, 2012
Russian President Vladimir Putin paid an unannounced visit to the scene of the deadliest flood in the post-Soviet era and berated officials for possibly deceiving him about their response.
Putin's trip late Sunday to the southern town of Krymsk came as the media speculated about insufficient warnings about the disaster -- the first since the Russian strongman's return to a third Kremlin term.
The July 7 pre-dawn floods in the Krasnodar region killed many of the 172 victims in their sleep and destroyed the property of some 30,000.
"Is there anyone here from the Investigative Committee?" Putin asked at the start of a meeting that was top item on state news broadcasts Monday in a sign of the political implications the flood carries for Putin's new term.
"I will definitely talk (to its chief) and give him the required orders," he said.
"People here think that there was no early warning -- despite the fact that the previous head of the administration said that there was one," said Putin, referring to an official who has since been fired.
"The Investigative Committee must issue an objective assessment of the actions of all officials," Putin warned.
News reports have cited locals as saying that those applying for emergency assistance had to sign documents stating they had received early warnings about a potential flood.
Some Russian lawmakers have demanded the dismissal of the region's powerful governor Alexander Tkachev while others said the heavy toll proved the current authorities' ineptitude.
Putin was shown having a terse exchange with Tkachev that began with the governor -- apparently sensing the president's angry mood -- thanking him in advance for keeping him on the job.
"Esteemed Vladimir Vladimirovich (Putin), first of all, I would like to thank you for your support," said Tkachev before being interrupted by Putin.
"Wrap up those thanks," Putin told him. "It is time to be more specific."
Putin's get-tough image suffered a bruising blow at the start of his first term as president in 2000 when he holidayed while the nation watched in horror as 118 seamen perished in the sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk.
The KGB-chief has worked hard to show himself in command of the chronic disasters that have since shadowed his 12-year rule.
He paid an immediate visit to Krymsk on the day of the flooding to meet local officials and on this occasion took the time to tour the town and hear out residents' complaints.
State television showed heavy security guards letting through small groups of locals to Putin -- some of the men bare-chested and several of the more elderly women shaking -- to vent their frustrations.
Some cited rumours saying the flood was caused by officials who opened the sluice gates in a nearby mountain reservoir to keep an important port city downriver from flooding.
Putin firmly denied this was possible and took time out to patiently address individual complaints.
"Thankfully, we have enough money to deal with this," he said at one stage.
"You hear what they say," Putin later told the regional officials at their more formal meeting.
"People here say that the local services ended up being unprepared at the moment of the disaster to deal with what was happening," he said.
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