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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has ordered that a million abandoned barrels of Soviet-era fuel be removed from the Arctic because they are polluting the environment.
Putin visited the Russian archipelago of Franz Josef Land, 1,000 km (600 miles) from the North Pole, as part of Russia's drive to reassert its presence in the resource-rich region, now opening up to commercial exploration because of melting ice.
Putin told state-run Rossiya 24 television in the Arctic he was shocked to see stocks of "abandoned barrels of fuel scattered all the way to the horizon." It was not immediately clear when Putin made the trip.
"The decrease in military activity after the collapse of the USSR has left this dump which we see now. The pollution level is six times higher than normal. What we need to do now is to organize a sweeping cleanup of the Arctic," he said.
He said fuel may leak into the Arctic Ocean from the rusty barrels as temperatures slowly rise.
An increase of up to 4 degrees Celsius has been felt across the Arctic in the past 30 years. While some scientists put it down to fluctuating weather patterns, environmentalist groups say it is caused by global warming due to human activity.
Putin mentioned the trip in a speech to parliament on April 20 but the Russian media only released the material on Thursday. Foreign reporters did not accompany Putin on the trip.
The footage was aired just days after Russia and Norway agreed on the course of their Arctic border after a decades-old dispute, paving the way for oil and gas exploration.
"Geopolitically, Russia's most vital national interests are linked to the Arctic," said Putin, wearing a red polar jacket and cap bearing Russia's national symbol -- a two-headed eagle.
During the Cold War, the archipelago, home to a large population of polar bears, was Russia's outpost in the Arctic and hosted an air defense base and military air strip.
Media-savvy Putin, 57, who has shot a tiger with a tranquilizer gun and released a pair of Persian leopards into the wild, was shown attaching a satellite-tracking tag onto the neck of a tranquilized male polar bear and shook its paw.
"The paw shake was strong," a smiling Putin said. "It is clear he is the real Lord of the Arctic."
Writing by Gleb Bryanski; Editing by Alison Williams