Russian minister dies trying to save filmmaker in Arctic drills

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Zinichev previously served in President Vladimir Putin's security detail (AFP/Alexey NIKOLSKY)
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Russia's emergencies minister has died trying to save a filmmaker who slipped from a cliff during training exercises in the Arctic, officials said Wednesday.

Yevgeny Zinichev, who previously served in President Vladimir Putin's security detail, is the first Russian cabinet member to die on duty.

He was lauded by senior government officials and the Russian leader as a loyal civil servant and a "hero". The UK's ambassador in Russia also offered condolences.

The 55-year-old "tragically died trying to save a person's life" near the city of Norilsk, the ministry said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies.

The ministry identified the filmmaker as 63-year-old Alexander Melnik who produced several films set in the Arctic region. It said he also died in the incident that took place earlier Wednesday.

Margarita Simonyan, the well-connected editor-in-chief of the state-funded news outlet RT, said the minister had fallen to his death trying to save the man later identified as Melnik.

"He and the cameraman were standing at the edge of a cliff," she said.

"The cameraman slipped and fell... Before anyone even figured out what happened, Zinichev jumped into the water after the fallen person and crashed against a protruding rock."

- Personal tribute from Putin -

Zinichev's deputy Andrei Gurovich said in televised remarks: "Without thinking for a second he acted not like a minister, but like a rescuer.

"This is how he lived all his life," Gurovich added.

In an usually personal note to Zinichev's family published by the Kremlin, Putin said he was "shocked by the tragic news" of his death.

"We have lost a true military officer, a comrade, a person of great inner strength and courage and bravery close to all of us. For me, this is an irreparable personal loss," Putin said.

Zinichev was a member of the KGB security service in the last years of the USSR and his career took off after he served in Putin's security detail between 2006 and 2015.

He held a number of high-profile jobs, briefly serving as acting governor of Russia's exclave region of Kaliningrad and then as deputy head of the Federal Security Service (FSB).

He was appointed head of the emergencies ministry in May, 2018. He was also a member of Russia's Security Council.

As head of the emergencies ministry, he held one of the highest-profile cabinet jobs, dealing with natural and man-made disasters and other rapid-response situations across the vast country.

The two-day drills he was participating in across several Arctic cities including Norilsk, kicked off on Tuesday involving over 6,000 people.

- 'Big loss for Russia' -

Condolences poured in from top officials and even foreign dignitaries including Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic.

Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin praised Zinichev as a "true Russian officer" and Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov said the minister "died like a hero."

"I knew him personally. We worked together closely and fruitfully," said the head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin.

FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov called his passing "a big loss for Russia."

The British Ambassador to Russia, Deborah Bronnert, said on Twitter she was "saddened" by Zinichev's death and expressed her condolences to his family.

Melnik was an award-winning film director and had travelled to Norilsk to work on a new film about the development of the Arctic and the Northern Sea Route.

Opening up the Arctic is a strategic priority for Moscow and it has huge projects to exploit the vast region's natural resources.

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