UST-KUT, Russia -- A fight between local officials in the Russian region of Irkutsk over forest fires is heating up, with one of them landing in a hospital and another in a river, as residents say it may be a sign of a power struggle ahead of elections.
Russia’s Investigative Committee said on April 29 that it had launched a preliminary investigation into a fire that occurred a day earlier near a forest on the outskirts of Ust-Kut, a Siberian town located 850 kilometers north of Irkutsk.
The committee said a local district official, who was noticed at the site, may face a charge of abuse of power.
No names or other details were provided by the committee, but Ust-Kut Mayor Aleksandr Dushin told RFE/RL that he and his associates had caught four district officials, including Deputy District Governor Mikhail Bars and the district governor's press secretary, Yekaterina Anisimova, as they -- or so Dushin alleges -- set dry grass on fire near a forest not far from Dushin's private lands.
The Ust-Kut mayor insists the four also were filming the fire using a drone, in order to accuse him later of being an arsonist.
Dushin provided RFE/RL with several videos, in one of which he is seen checking the contents of three plastic canisters aboard a boat allegedly used by the district officials to travel to the area.
The mayor says on the video that the canisters are filled with gasoline as a visibly beaten man, who was later identified as Bars, sits slumped across from him.
Ust-Kut district Governor Tamara Klimina, meanwhile, rejected Dushin's accusations, saying she had sent her deputy Bars and others to check reports about fire cells in the forest at three sites.
One of the sites was close to Dushin's private lands, where Klimina claims her associates were "taken hostage" by Dushin and his people.
According to Klimina, it was Dushin himself who set fire to dry grass and other wood waste to clean up areas around his private lands.
"Each year, Dushin uses fire for cleaning space near his farming acreage and the fire then moves deeper inside the forest.... As far as we know, those people broke Mikhail Bars' jaw and collarbone, threw Yekaterina Anisimova into the river, and forcibly took the drone and mobile phones from them," Klimina said on April 29, adding that the gasoline in the canisters was fuel for the boat.
On April 30, the head of Klimina's administration, Marina Kosygina, told the TASS news agency that Bars had been hospitalized.
Dmitry Dmitriyev, a local lawyer, told RFE/RL that the fight most likely has political roots.
Klimina, who runs the district, belongs to the Liberal Democratic Party, while Dushin is a member of the ruling United Russia party. Klimina is up for reelection later this year.
Forest fires can sometimes be a political hot topic in Russia, especially in Siberia.
Each year, wildfires destroy hundreds of thousands of hectares in the country, sometimes with devastating impacts for local communities. The Irkutsk and Krasnoyark regions were hit particularly hard last year by fires, forcing Russian President Vladimir Putin to declare a state of emergency.
Greenpeace said last week that forest fires are currently burning on over 1.3 million hectares in Russia, which the organization said is unusually large for the spring season.