The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

May 17, 2014

Thousands flee, 25 die in record Balkan floods

MAGLAJ, Bosnia — Packed into buses, boats and helicopters, carrying nothing but a handful of belongings, tens of thousands fled their homes Saturday in Bosnia and Serbia to escape the worst flooding in a century.

Rapidly rising rivers surged into homes, sometimes reaching up to the second floors, sending people climbing to rooftops for rescue.

Hundreds were also evacuated in Croatia.

Authorities said 25 people have died but warned the death toll could rise. Tens of thousands of homes were left without electricity or drinking water.

Landslides triggered by the floods also raised the risk of injury or death from land mines left over from Bosnia's 1992-95 war. The landslides swept away many of the carefully placed warning signs around the minefields.

Three months' worth of rain has fallen on the region in three days this week, creating the worst floods since records began 120 years ago.

Observed from the air, almost a third of Bosnia, mostly its northeast corner, resembled a huge muddy lake, with houses, roads and rail lines submerged. Admir Malagic, a spokesman for Bosnia's Security Ministry, said about a million people — over a quarter of the country's population — live in the affected area.

"Bosnia is facing a horrible catastrophe," said Bakir Izetbegovic, the chairman of the Bosnian three-man presidency. "We are still not fully aware of actual dimensions of the catastrophe ... we will have to take care of hundreds, thousands of people ..."

Izetbegovic was touring Maglaj, hard hit by floods. As the waters mostly withdrew on Saturday, Maglaj was covered in mud and debris, with residents checking damage and bringing furniture out in the streets to dry.

"Everything is destroyed, but we are happy to be alive," said Maglaj resident Zijad Omerovic.

In the eastern Bosnian town of Bijeljina, some 10,000 people were being evacuated Saturday after the rain-swollen Sava River pushed through flood defenses, endangering four villages outside the town. The peak of the Sava flood wave was expected in Bijeljina later Saturday, before advancing to Serbia.

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