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Fights start as thousands stuck in Moscow airports

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Irate holidaymakers beat up Aeroflot staff at a Moscow airport on Tuesday as thousands were stranded with little food or information, after icy rain and blackouts disrupted traffic for a third straight day.

Riot police officers try to calm down agitated passengers at an empty check-in counter at the departure hall of Moscow's Domodedovo airport, December 28, 2010. REUTERS/Mikhail Voskresensky

At Sheremetyevo where Russia’s flagship carrier is based, Aeroflot personnel were now scared of dealing with agitated passengers, saying the airport did not have enough security guards, state-run RIA quoted an airline employee as saying.

Police told Reuters they were not involved in the reported violence at Sheremetyevo and declined to comment.

On Monday a group of passengers stormed passport control at Moscow’s Domodedovo, Russia’s biggest airport, where OMON riot police have since been dispatched.

“People are desperate. Fights have broken out. It feels like there is no air in here,” one woman at Domodedovo told Vesti 24 television on Tuesday.

Russia’s transport minister issued blistering criticism of the management of the country’s largest airport, Domodedovo, saying it should have shut because of the power cuts instead of keeping passengers hostage waiting for their flights.

“Here is a question for the airport’s management -- why did they keep receiving passengers?” Igor Levitin was quoted by the Itar-Tass news agency as saying.

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“After the lights went out, they should have shut!”

Prosecutors launched a probe on Tuesday into the widespread delays at the Russian capital’s two main airports.

Only 150 flights took off overnight at Domodedovo, which typically runs some 700 flights a day, after freezing rain snapped power lines leaving it in the dark for more than 10 hours over the weekend.

Arrival and departure information boards were almost all red, warning of delays and cancellations as passengers slept on baggage conveyor belts and departure hall floors.

Russia’s aviation agency chief Alexander Neradko said in televised comments that it would take another two to three days to normalise transport at Domodedovo and that priority was being given to passengers stuck since Sunday.

Shortages of de-icing fluid at Moscow’s second airport, Sheremetyevo, grounded about half its flights.

Other Moscow airports have also seen traffic severely cut after freezing rain coated the city in a thick sheet of ice, and health officials advised Russians to stay at home. Heavy snow and sub-zero temperatures are typical fare for Moscow’s airports but the weekend downpour of freezing rain was unusual.

The Russian Tourism Association said some 20,000 passengers have had their flights delayed, though airport authorities say the number is in the low thousands.

Exasperated passengers told Ekho Moskvye radio that restaurants had hiked their prices, with bottles of water selling for up to 500 roubles ($16).

Domodedovo handled nearly 19 million passengers last year, while Sheremetyevo handled almost 15 million. Domodedovo plans a stock market flotation in 2011 and could raise up to $1 billion (645 million pounds), financial sources told Reuters in November.

Editing by Louise Ireland