Russia 'saves' child cancer hospital after outcry

ST. PETERSBURG - The authorities of Russia's second city Saint Petersburg promised Wednesday not to close its only hospital treating children with cancer and hand it over to senior judges, in an apparent U-turn following a public outcry.

"The hospital is operating and will operate as usual. Period." Andrei Kibitov, the spokesman of the city governor Georgy Poltavchenko, wrote on his Twitter account.

"Everything will be as usual, there will not be any move."

The public had reacted angrily to a plan to hand over the city's hospital No. 31, which has the northwestern region's only children's cancer unit, and use it exclusively to treat senior judges who are relocating to the city.

"There is no decison either on reorganising Hospital No. 31 nor on moving it. And there will not be any," the chairman of the city legislature, Vyacheslav Makarov, said Wednesday, cited by his press service.

More than 150,000 people signed an online petition and stars including actress Chulpan Khamatova and rock singer Andrei Makarevich appealed to President Vladimir Putin in an open letter over the decision.

The head of the hospital's children's department, Margarita Belogurova, had warned that a move would "destroy unique ways of caring for the children."

Protesters had arranged to hold a rally in the city centre on Wednesday evening, with permission for up to 10,000 people.

The Russian Orthodox Church also hit out at the proposed closure in an unusual statement, warning judges it would be "morally unacceptable" to cause suffering to children with cancer.

The city authorities initially appeared taken aback by the public outrage at the proposal, trying to calm the protest mood by announcing a tentative plan to open a specialist children's cancer hospital in the city.

The proposal to close Hospital No. 31 came up as part of ambitious plans to transfer Russia's Supreme Court and Higher Arbitration Court from Moscow to the Tsarist-era capital, a move involving thousands of staff.

In a Soviet throwback, government ministries and state agencies still commonly have state hospitals assigned to treat their staff - without granting free access to the general public. Their facilities are seen as better-than-average.

Hospital No. 31 is a modern building dating back to the 1970s and has highly specialised modern cancer treatment equipment bought with funds including million-dollar charity donations. In the Soviet era, it served party officials.