Russia halts search for meteorite in stricken region

CHELYABINSK, Russia (AFP) - Russian authorities halted their search on Sunday for the meteorite that spectacularly struck the Urals last week, leaving about 1,200 people injured and damaging several thousand buildings.

The 10-tonne space rock streaked over the Chelyabinsk region in central Russia in a blinding fireball on Friday just as the world was braced for a close encounter with a large asteroid.

Residents of Chelyabinsk, a city of 1.1 million and the centre of Russia's heavy industry, were struggling to pick up the pieces and replace thousands of blown-out windows in time for Monday, when schools are set to reopen.

Despite an intensive search of a frozen lake where fisherman found a large hole they thought was caused by the meteorite, no remnants have been found.

With air temperatures around minus 17 deg C, Russian divers spent Saturday scouring lake Chebarkul, about 60km from Chelyabinsk, but the emergency ministry has now decided to focus on repair works in the region instead, a spokesman told AFP.

"Divers worked there, but we didn't find anything," said spokesman Vyacheslav Ladonkin. He said the ministry believed a circular 8m hole in the lake was not caused by any extraterrestrial body.

"We believe it was caused by something else," he told AFP. "A decision has been made to stop the search. It will not be continued today."

The meteor's fiery entry into Earth's atmosphere set off a shockwave in an event unprecedented in modern times.

About 24,000 emergency workers were replacing smashed windows after nearly 5,000 buildings were damaged.

The force blew out a large section of brick wall at the local zinc plant, and tore holes in the walls of the city's ice skating and hockey centre, where several matches were cancelled.

Forty people remained in hospital on Sunday, mostly with cuts, broken bones and concussion, a doctor told Rossiya Channel from the Chelyabinsk hospital said, while a special centre was opened to provide psychological help to those disturbed by the incident.

The meteor strike is the most stunning cosmic incident above Russia since the 1908 Tunguska Event, in which a colossal blast most scientists blame on an asteroid or a comet levelled trees across a stretch of Siberia.

Scientists at US space agency Nasa estimated that the amount of energy released in the atmosphere on Friday was about 30 times greater than the force of the nuclear bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima during World War II.

"People (of Chelyabinsk) can consider Feb 15 their second birth date," the governor of the Chelyabinsk region, Mr Mikhail Yurevich, told reporters, saying, "God directed danger away" from the most populated areas, causing injuries but no deaths.

The drama in Russia developed just hours before an asteroid - a space object similar to a tiny planet orbiting the sun - whizzed safely past Earth at the unprecedented distance of 27,000km.

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