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Moscow (AFP) July 22, 2012
Russia on Sunday announced the arrest of three local officials for negligence during flooding that killed 172 people and has caused a political headache for President Vladimir Putin.
The Investigative Committee revealed the surprise detentions during a lightning visit to the devastated Black Sea village of Krymsk by Putin's powerful domestic security mastermind Alexander Bastrykin.
The Krymsk district chiefs now face up to seven years in prison -- a sentence rarely seen in such cases and one stressing the urgency Putin attaches to the first big disaster to strike since his return in May.
"Essentially ignoring the weather service forecasts, the suspects did not inform the population about the looming danger and did not take steps to evacuate people," committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said in televised remarks.
He added that the head of the nearby village of Nizhnebakansk may be held later on the same charge of failing to properly alert locals about the possible dangers of a fast-approaching thunderstorm.
Most of the victims died in their sleep in pre-dawn July 7 flooding that also destroyed the property of some 30,000 people in the worst such disaster in post-Soviet times.
Putin himself broadly hinted at possible sackings when he raced to the little southern village for the second time in just a few days on July 15.
State television then showed a remarkable sequence of some 20 minutes during which Putin patiently fielded complaints from irate locals who questioned official accounts of why the floods came.
Many spoke of hearing no flood warning alarms and only receiving text messages on mobile phones that themselves cut off as the storms progressed.
Local news reports have also said those applying for emergency assistance often had to sign documents stating they had received due notice about a potential flood.
"People here think that there was no early warning -- despite the fact that the previous head of the administration said that there was one," Putin told local officials after being briefed by the residents of Krymsk.
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 disasters that have since clouded his 12-year rule.
State and Kremlin-allied media meanwhile have revved up an apparent campaign to deflect any blame from Putin and implicate locals who do not report directly to Moscow.
The LifeNews.ru website -- a popular outlet with top security sources and seemingly close government ties -- said the detained Krymsk district chief was alerted of the flood danger a full three hours before the river banks broke.
Post-flood recovery work has remained a top item on state television news for much of the past two weeks as images of doctors giving vaccinations mingle those of worker brigades pounding away at roads and homes.
The media campaign has extended to the entire Krasnodar region -- a recent recipient of billions of dollars in contracts and federal assistance linked to preparations for the high-profile Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games.
"Kyrmsk is undergoing a transformation and normal life is returning," one report on local Krasnodar Plus television declared this week.
The official Investigative Committee meanwhile said that the four officials stood accused of "violating people's constitutionally guaranteed right to life and the legally protected interests of society and the state".
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