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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Report Faults Ministry for Lensk Floods

A disputed investigation into the causes of this spring's devastating flooding on the Lena River in eastern Siberia has fueled mutual recriminations between local authorities and the Emergency Situations Ministry.

A group of scientists commissioned to probe the causes of the disaster by Mikhail Nikolayev, president of the Sakha republic, where Lensk is located, submitted its report Tuesday accusing the Emergency Situations Ministry of exacerbating the flood damage through the poor planning of ice-bombing operations.

Ministry officials, who have repeatedly lambasted the governments of Lensk and Sakha for lagging behind on reconstruction work and preparations for winter, denied the allegations, which press reports called politically motivated.

In a telephone interview Wednesday from Sakha, Viktor Shepelyov, a member of the Yakutsk Scientific Center's investigating group, said chunks of ice floes upriver, broken to bits by the ministry using Su-24 bombers, piled on top of each other and blocked the river further down.

"The bombings moved three smaller jams downstream from Lensk and there they merged into a bigger one," Shepelyov said. "Because of the new jam, the water level climbed from 17 meters to 20 and Lensk found itself under water totally."

Shepelyov admitted that even with the water level at 17 meters, 90 percent of Lensk, which has a population of 26,000, would have been flooded.

Vladislav Polov, head of the Emergency Situations Ministry's center for monitoring and prognosis, rejected the findings of the Sakha group and said the severity of the damage was heightened because of inaction by local authorities.

"Ice jams cannot be moved by bombings," Polov said in a telephone interview. "These bombings saved hundreds [of lives] in Lensk."

Polov said flooding will continue to plague the area until the local government, which receives federal funding for flood-prevention, gets rid of a shoal that causes broken ice to pile up during the spring thaw.

"Every year they have floods in Lensk because there is a shoal downstream where ice builds up," he lamented. "All they have to do is iron out this shoal by sending an icebreaker over it a couple of times."

In a televised conference call Wednesday with officials responsible for preparing Lensk for winter, Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu railed at regional and municipal officials for failing to compile a list of flood victims eligible for compensation and not restoring heat to the area. He also criticized them for rebuilding a mere 40 percent of the 1,000 or so houses damaged by the floods.

Earlier this week, several media reports speculated that the latest investigation was ordered by Nikolayev to eclipse some of the allegations that have been lodged against him recently and to shift blame onto the ministry instead. Since flooding began in May, Nikolayev has been accused of squandering or stealing federal funds and, also, of failing to forecast and brace for a predictable situation.

Interfax reported that Sakha airlines, controlled by Nikolayev's administration, wrenched up its fares for tickets between Lensk and Sakha's capital, Yakutsk, from 2,200 rubles in May to 3,500 in August. The move, according to Shoigu, is a hindrance for reconstruction workers who regularly travel along that route.

Shoigu has also complained that Sakha authorities force construction workers who come to Lensk from countries of the former Soviet Union to register with local police. Novaya Gazeta reported Monday that the fine for failing to register is a hefty 1,000 rubles.

Reached by telephone Wednesday, Nikolayev's spokeswoman, Tatyana Tarasova, denied the allegations of corruption and political machinations by her boss. She said the president's administration had no official comment on the investigation results.