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Balkans brace for fresh floods as thousands left homeless

A man, woman and two dogs are evacuated on a boat over flooded streets in the village of Gunja, in eastern Croatia/AFP

A man, woman and two dogs are evacuated on a boat over flooded streets in the village of Gunja, in eastern Croatia/AFP

BELGRADE, May 19- The Balkans braced for more misery as the death toll from the worst floods in a century rose to 47 and rising waters forced thousands more to flee their homes.

Muddy waters from the Sava River have submerged houses, churches, mosques and roads in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia after record rainfall wreaked havoc across the central European region.

More than 60,000 people have been evacuated as dozens of towns and villages have been completely cut off by the torrents, and water levels are expected to rise further in the coming days.

Bosnian officials say about a million people — more than a quarter of the country’s population — have been affected after the heaviest rainfalls on record began last week.

Villages have been hit by landslides caused by the torrential rainfall while officials fear unexploded landmines and infectuous diseases could pose fresh dangers.

Rescuers told of wrenching scenes as they finally reached cut-off villages, with dozens of people huddling on top of the tallest houses with no water or food.

“This is Armageddon, I can’t describe it otherwise,” Nedeljko Brankovic told AFP from Krupanj, a town in the southwestern town of Serbia.

“Houses are literally washed down and landslides are everywhere.”

The death toll from the floods was raised to 47 Monday after two new victims were found overnight in a village near the western Serbian town of Sabac.

Neighbouring Croatia has also evacuated hundreds of people from along the river Sava.

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– ‘I have left everything’ –

In Obrenovac, some 40 kilometres (24 miles) from Belgrade, more than 8,000 people have been evacuated, one third of its population.

Svetlana Obojcic, 38, was rescued along with her neighbours from the top floor of her building.

“All 30 of us were in one flat for three days, without electricity,” said the mother of two as she firmly hugged her six year old twins at a temporary shelter in the Belgrade suburb Sumice.

“We ate what we had, we did not have enough water, but at least we are dry now,” she said.

Authorities sealed off the town amid fears the flood waters, filled with debris and dead animals, could become a breeding ground for disease.

Local television footage filmed from a helicopter showed most of the city’s buildings submerged by the floods, with water swamping the lower floors of six-storey buildings.

“It is not safe for the inhabitants to return,” said Predrag Maric, chief of the emergency services.

Officials have appealed to residents to restrict their power use after water defences around the Nikola Tesla power plant, which produces around half of Serbia’s electricity, gave way.

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The plant near Obrenovac is now only protected by temporary dikes built by thousands of volunteers along the Sava River.

“I am devastated. I have left everything, my cattle, my pigs, my chickens. Thank God my wife, children and grandchildren are safe,” said 78-year old pensioner Veselin Rankovic from Zabrezje, a nearby village.

– Threat of disease –

Several border crossings have been closed as authorities fear heavy rainfall could cause more landslides and dislodge landmines left from the Balkan war.

It is estimated that some 120,000 unexploded mines are still left over from the 1992-1995 war.

Health authorities in Bosnia and Serbia have also warned of possible outbreak of infectuous diseases such as enterocolitis, typhoid and hepatitis as the temperatures have risen.

“We have to react properly to avoid even worse catastrophe, to avoid infectuous diseases,” Serbian Health Minister ZLatibor Loncar told state TV RTS.

Teams from Russia, the European Union, the United States and neighbouring Montenegro and Macedonia have started to arrive with humanitarian aid, authorities said.

The United Nations flew life saving equipment to Serbia overnight, with another plane with emergency food and water supplies was expected later Monday.

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In Belgrade, thousands of volunteers were packing and lifting sandbags on the riverfronts of the Sava to secure the capital’s lower areas from flooding expected in the coming days.

“This natural cataclysm might be calming down, but we need lots of efforts to rebuild the country,” said President Tomislav Nikolic as a convoy with assistance left for Krupanj.

Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic, who won the Rome Masters on Sunday, said he would donate some 700,000 euros ($960,000) to the victims of floods in Serbia and Bosnia, local media reported.


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