Russia `suffering a silent disaster'

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FIVE SHIPS taking supplies to beleaguered Russians in the Far East have been abandoned after getting stuck in ice amid an increasingly frantic battle to avert a disastrous winter in Russia's remote reaches.

Thousands of people have been evacuated from communities in the frozen east and north because of a lack of fuel and food, while others have voluntarily fled hundreds of miles to the nearest towns as Arctic weather closes in.

The stranded ships - one carrying 100 tons of much-needed diesel fuel - are just one setback in a crisis caused by Russia's economic meltdown but compounded by a bad harvest, floods, drought, falling imports and fracturing supply lines.

The Red Cross says this winter may be the worst in a generation for millions of Russians, and is appealing for the West not to turn its back. Still two-thirds short of a $15m appeal for Russia, it has warned that the country is suffering a "silent disaster".

Rural Russians are renowned for their survival skills, honed over decades of shortages and miserable weather. But Caroline Hurford, spokesman for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Moscow, said: "This winter, you will see on your television screens scenes of absolute poverty."

Despite assurances from the Russian government that the situation is under control, this is far from the only warning voice. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation yesterday unveiled a report saying that - although national shortages of basic foodstuffs were not expected - some Russians could face hardship in the coming months caused by a sharp decline in the output of wheat, barley, potatoes and other crops. "The most vulnerable socio-economic groups - pensioners, orphans, the unemployed and households dependent on public salaries, can expect a rough winter," it said.

The Russian authorities want impoverished northern regions to be the main focus of two aid deals with the West, not least because climatic conditions prevent the population from growing their own food.

Moscow signed a $625m (pounds 386m) agreement last week with the United States for 3.1 million tons of food. Yesterday, a tentative deal was reached with the European Union in which Russia will buy $480m of food, and receive up to $14m of EU humanitarian aid.

But the government faces an enormous task if it is to ensure that the aid - or profits from it - reaches areas of genuine need, and is not intercepted by criminal organisations or corrupt officials. Supervising supply lines that stretch across more than 6,000 miles has often proved impossible for Russia's federal and regional authorities.

The needy areas - often the legacy of Stalin's drive to fuel his industrial empire with minerals and gold - are dotted around an enormous sweep of land. They stretch from the far north-west across northern Siberia's Arctic edge to Russia's eastern coast on the Bering Sea, only a few hundred miles from Alaska.

Among the worst areas are in the Chukotka region, where inhabitants of Arctic villages have begun to abandon their homes to move to larger settlements because of fuel and food shortages.

In one, Mys Shmidta - where temperatures fall to minus 55C - there are reportedly only two centrally heated buildings, a school and a hospital. The authorities say they have evacuated hundreds of people, although others have been flooding in from even more desolate communities.

Meanwhile, the five abandoned vessels have been left in an ice-bound rivermouth on the Kamchatka peninsula after repeated efforts failed to blast them free. The Russian Ministry of Emergencies plans to send trucks to off-load the diesel once the ice becomes thick enough.