MOSCOW May 17 Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called on Monday for tighter state control of coal mining to avoid a repeat of a blast that killed 66 people this month, but he avoided direct criticism of the mine's tycoon owners.
Twenty-four people are still missing after a methane gas blast on May 8 ripped through Siberia's Raspadskaya coal mine, in which billionaire Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich has a stake.
Speaking via video link to Abramovich and local officials assembled near the mine, Putin said the system of ensuring mine safety is broken: Funds spent on mine safety in Russia have increased nine-fold in a decade, but deaths have not declined.
"Where specifically was this money invested?" Putin asked.
A safety watchdog directly answerable to the government should have the power to shut mines and sanction managers without a court order, he said. Payments to relatives of miners killed in accidents, largely voluntary now, should be specified by law.
Tensions are running high in the town where the blast took place, with riot police called in last Saturday to disperse miners and their families, who had blocked a railway line to protest over low pay and poor safety at the mine.
In a gesture to residents of Mezhdurechensk, 3,000 km (1,850 miles) east of Moscow, Putin ordered that all Raspadskaya miners receive full pay while the mine is out of operation.
But despite his reputation as a populist politician who has scored points by scolding unpopular tycoons after other industrial accidents, Putin avoided singling out the billionaire tycoons present.
Abramovich, who lives in Britain, flew to the region for the first time since the accident to take part in the video link. But Putin did not ask him any questions or make any comments about his absence from the disaster scene.
Putin also avoided direct criticism of Alexander Abramov, like Abramovich a shareholder in steelmaker Evraz HK1q.L, which partly owns the mine's operator Raspadskaya (RASP.MM).
At the risk of angering the powerful miners' unions, Putin even hinted that miners were in part to blame for lax safety.
"Within the workforce there must be a climate of intolerance for violations of safety rules, dealing with fire, the use of alcohol and drugs -- this does happen ... and it's unacceptable.
"Only the miners can create an atmosphere of intolerance to such violations."
Regular accidents have prompted repeated calls from Russia's leaders for improvements to creaking infrastructure and stricter adherence to safety rules, but Kremlin critics say little has been done. (Writing by Conor Humphries, editing by Gerald E. McCormick)