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By Denis Dyomkin
KHABAROVSK, Russia (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin ordered an inquiry on Thursday into local officials' handling of Russia's worst floods in 120 years, which have cost the country nearly $1 billion.
Putin made the announcement after visiting devastated regions in Russia's far east where houses are half-submerged, streets and fields have disappeared under water and thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes.
Putin's call for an investigation appeared intended to show he is firmly in charge after protests against him in big cities last year, and that he is ready to defend voters' interests.
State television, which has often tried to burnish Putin's action-man image, showed him peering through a plane window and looking stern as he flew over stricken areas where the roofs of houses were barely visible above the muddy water.
"There are some people who doubt that all officials, including those in charge of hydroenergy facilities, acted strictly in line with the relevant guidelines and current legislation," Putin told officials at a meeting in the city of Khabarovsk, close to the border with China.
"The actions of all officials must be thoroughly investigated and analyzed, and (the results) reported to me."
Asked by the officials how they should handle the floods, he replied bluntly: "I don't expect any heroic deeds. You just need to do your duty professionally, work hard and be honest."
Anyone suspected of incompetence could face criminal charges. Four local officials in southern Russia were convicted of criminal negligence this month for failing to alert residents to floods last year which killed more than 170 people.
Punishing local officials offers central authorities a way of heading off criticism in a country that is often hit by natural disasters and has a poor record on industrial and transport accidents.
No deaths have been reported in the floods, which followed rain and have lasted several weeks. But thousands have been evacuated from their homes, farmland has been damaged and the authorities put the damage at 30 billion roubles ($900 million).
One local emergencies official said the cost could rise to 50 billion roubles, as Russia tries to avoid slipping into recession.
Putin, who wore a dark anorak and open shirt, promised compensation for victims. He has pressed on with his trip despite the prospect of Western military strikes against Russia's ally, Syria, over a suspected chemical weapons attack.
($1 = 33.1985 Russian roubles)
(Writing by Denis Dymokin and Timothy Heritage; editing by Andrew Roche)