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August 20, 2009

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Russian dam kin seek truth amid fading hopes

RELATIVES of missing workers yesterday demanded the authorities tell the truth about an accident at Russia's largest hydro-power plant as hopes of finding 60 missing people alive faded.

A sudden surge of water burst through aging turbines at the Soviet-era Sayano-Shushenskaya plant in Siberia on Monday, flooding a 100-meter-long engine hall and four other floors below it. So far, 14 bodies have been found.

"They do not care what has happened to our men," shouted one of 100 assembled relatives of the dead and missing after a meeting with Viktor Zimin, the head of the local government. "We want to know the truth."

"The state and the owners just cared about profit," another relative said. Flags flew at half mast as the task of burying the dead began.

Several major accidents in the mining and power sectors have highlighted Russia's creaking Soviet-era infrastructure which engineers say has been starved of investment for decades.

The accident has shaved US$1.5 billion off the market value of the plant's owner RusHydro and its Moscow-listed shares opened down 10 percent yesterday after the end of a two-day trading suspension requested by management.

The local government of the Khakasia Republic said the search was continuing, though rescuers said privately that there was little hope of finding many more people alive.

"Divers are working in very difficult conditions - the water is muddy and mixed with machine oil but the entire turbine room is being searched very carefully ... No-one intends to end the search operation," the local government said in a statement.

Divers found one more body yesterday in the engine room, taking the death toll to 14 with 15 others injured, according to a spokesman of the local emergencies ministry. He said another 60 people remained unaccounted for.

The cause of the water surge - labeled a "hydro-shock" by officials - which flooded the engine room and damaged three of the huge turbines is still unclear.

Russian officials say the 1,074-meter wide concrete structure of the dam has not been damaged and that there is no risk of flooding.

But yesterday a 25-kilometer-long oil slick was snaking its way down the Yenisei River south of the dam.


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