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Russia's Putin Lambasts Officials After Disco Fire

Over 100 people died in the fire
MOSCOW (Reuters) -- Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin lambasted fire and health officials today in a city where 113 people died in a weekend nightclub inferno and promised compensation to victims' families.

Some mourners outside the Lame Horse nightclub in the city of Perm in the Urals mountains, 1,150 kilometers (720 miles) east of Moscow, alleged that corruption allowed the nightclub owners to ignore fire safety rules for years.

Putin, who arrived in Perm for an emergency meeting with officials late on December 7 and laid flowers at the entrance to the nightclub, said a state commission that included Perm's chief fire inspector had certified the nightclub in 2002.

"According to the investigators, the building was pretty much in the same shape when it burned," Putin said in remarks posted on the Russian government's website.

He said fire inspectors had issued a warning to the club's owners about a year ago but failed to check if there was any action taken on their warning.

"Such an attitude can be qualified as negligence, at least," Putin said. "Possibly there were other motives for the lack of action by state officials -- investigators should thoroughly check all possibilities."

The fire, Russia's worst in decades, began when sparks from fireworks ignited wicker coverings on the ceiling of the packed nightclub, provoking a stampede as partygoers rushed towards a single narrow exit.

Police have arrested the owner and two managers at the club on charges of manslaughter and breaches of fire safety. Charges have also been brought against the man who organised the fireworks, the prosecutor's office said on Monday.

Vicious Circle

More than 15,000 people die each year in fires across Russia and senior officials acknowledge that fire inspections are routinely used as a way to demand bribes from establishments rather than enforce safety rules.

Russia has sought to ease some of the excessive regulation for small and medium businesses in recent months to help the economy through its worst economic crisis in a decade but Putin indicated the change could be premature.

"We are in a vicious circle. When you give more rights to controlling bodies you get corruption. As soon as the burden is eased you get negligence and cost optimisation, first of all on safety," Putin said.

Putin recalled other major fires, including one in a retirement home in northern Russia in January in which 23 people died.

Russia declared on December 7 a national day of mourning and Putin cancelled an evening event in the Bolshoi Theater he had been due to attend with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to fly to the grief stricken city.

He said hospitals in Perm had not been able to treat the victims properly.

"I do not want to rush to hasty conclusions...but according to the Health Ministry's reports the hospitals that they checked are in a dire state and they could not find even the essential medications there," Putin said.

On December 7, Putin visited some of the 121 people injured in the fire who were airlifted to Moscow for treatment. In Perm Putin pledged 500,000 roubles ($17,000) from federal and local budgets to the victims' families in compensation.