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Putin Orders Investigation into Pneumonia Outbreak Among Recruits - 2004-01-16

Russian President Vladimir Putin is calling for a high-level investigation into an outbreak of pneumonia among a group of new Russian conscripts on their first deployment. The recruits became ill after they were left to stand for hours in freezing temperatures.

President Putin has called the incident criminal, and has ordered a full investigation.

Mr. Putin says those found to be responsible for leaving the soldiers outside in temperatures plunging below 10 degrees Celsius must and will be punished. He has ordered government agencies, including the defense ministry and Russia's security service, the FSB, to look into the matter.

The troops were forced to stand outside for as long as seven hours when their plane stopped off to refuel in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk.

As a result, one soldier died and more than 50 were treated in hospitals for pneumonia. Twenty five soldiers are still reported to be in serious condition.

This is not the first outbreak of a fatal illness among Russian servicemen. Last January, one soldier died and 250 were hospitalized when they were forced to walk back from a bathhouse in sub-freezing temperatures.

There are also frequent reports of vicious bullying and of conscripts having to go without proper clothing and equipment in Russia's underfunded army. Increasingly, the harsh treatment and difficult conditions have led many young Russians to go to great lengths to escape the two-year conscription.

Hoping to change that, President Putin recently announced plans to try to upgrade military service. He has set target dates for providing improved equipment and training to Russian troops. Mr. Putin also hopes to move to a system of volunteer, contract service, rather than forced conscription.