April 17, 2006

Thousands flee as Danube breaches defenses

By Martin Dokoupil

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - The Danube river broke through flood
defenses in southeastern Europe on Monday, driving thousands of
people from their homes along its banks in Serbia, Romania and
Bulgaria, officials said.

Swollen by heavy rain and melting snow from central Europe,
the river hit its highest level in 111 years at the weekend,
swamping ports and thousands of hectares (acres) of farmland.

Authorities evacuated 3,200 people and more than 6,000
animals from the village of Rast in southern Romania on Monday
after the Danube breached a nearby dam and flooded the area.

"Police and paramilitary units used trucks to take people
out of the flooded village. They have been taken to stay with
relatives or friends," said police spokeswoman Maria Vasile.

In the nearby village of Negoi, 230 people were taken to
safety. Television footage showed police in rescue boats
helping people to escape from their houses.

Elsewhere in Romania, authorities employed controlled
flooding at the weekend to slow the river's rise and in some
places its level dropped.

But officials said a wave of floodwater traveling down
river from Serbia would reach Romania in coming days and that
hundreds more people were ready to evacuate at a moment's


More than 44,000 hectares in southern Romania, a fertile
region for wheat and maize farming, are under water and
officials said they would submerge another 26,000 hectares this
week to help protect heavily populated areas.

"We are on alert and doing what we can to prevent damage
and to save lives," said Chirica Lefter, government
representative for Romania's Tulcea county.

Much of the region is still reeling from floods last year
in which scores of people were drowned and houses, farmland and
infrastructure worth hundreds of millions of euros (U.S.
dollars) were destroyed.

In Serbia's capital Belgrade, 250 km of flood defenses held
the Danube at bay as it reached record levels, but officials
said there was a danger waterlogged dykes could collapse.

The Tisa river also hit a record level, just centimeters
below the top of embankments.

"We now have to watch out for the long-standing pressure on
the barriers, with water expected to stay high for some 10 to
15 days," said Goran Kamcev, head of Serbia's anti-flood task

"It could cause the dykes to leak or even break and our
teams on the ground have to stay vigilant."

Officials said heavy flooding had been reported in Ritopek,
downstream from Belgrade, and people in the area had asked for

In the port of Vidin in northwest Bulgaria, the river
dropped slightly but more than 100 people fled for dry ground
from the town and from Nikopol downstream. Many of Nikopol's
houses were submerged.

Civil defense workers prepared to evacuate 600 people from
the village of Zabovanovo because they expected the Danube to
rise again.

"A new high wave is expected this Wednesday and there may
be new flooding," said Georgi Linkov, civil defense head in
Pleven, northern Bulgaria.

(Additional reporting by Beti Bilandzic, Kremena Miteva,
Tsvetelia Ilieva and Marius Zaharia, Aurora Martiniuc)