Vladimir Radyuhin

MOSCOW: For the first time since World War II, people in Moscow feel like living in a besieged city. Only this time it is not German armies that threaten them, but the bird flu virus. Cases of H5N1 avian flu were first reported in two households within 50 km of Moscow on Saturday.

On Monday, the disease hit another four sites near the capital, and was registered in three more towns later in the week.

A total of 448 birds have died and 30,000 have been vaccinated.

All the outbreaks around Moscow have been traced to birds bought in the last two weeks at the city's pet market. The market was immediately closed down and a 5-km quarantine zone was set up around it. Health officials said the bird flu had not affected any of the 23 big poultry farms around Moscow.

This is not the first outbreak of bird flu in Russia, but never before the potentially deadly virus has come so close to the capital, home to more than 10 million people. No human cases of bird flu have been recorded in Russia.

While previous outbreaks in Russia were triggered by migrating wild fowl, the latest one is blamed on imported poultry. Investigators are looking for a businessman who is believed to have brought infected poultry from abroad.