Catastrophic destruction from floods in Balkans, landmines swept away

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BRCKO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) - Floodwaters triggered more than 3,000 landslides across the Balkans on Sunday, laying waste to entire towns and villages and disturbing land mines leftover from the region's 1990s war, along with warning signs that marked the unexploded weapons.

The Balkans' worst flooding since record keeping began forced tens of thousands of people from their homes and threatened to inundate Serbia's main power plant, which supplies electricity to a third of the country and most of the capital, Belgrade.

Authorities organized a frenzied helicopter airlift to get terrified families to safety before the water swallowed up their homes. Many were plucked from rooftops.

"The situation is catastrophic," said Bosnia's refugee minister, Adil Osmanovic.

Three months' worth of rain fell on the region in three days, producing the worst floods since rainfall measurements began 120 years ago. At least two dozen people have died, with more casualties expected.

The rain caused an estimated 2,100 landslides that covered roads, homes and whole villages throughout hilly Bosnia. Another 1,000 landslides were reported in neighboring Serbia.

In Serbia, more than 20,000 people have been forced from their homes. Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said Sunday that 12 bodies have been found so far in Obrenovac, site of the coal-fired Nikola Tesla power plant, Serbia's biggest.

Parts of the plant and a nearby mine that provides its fuel were underwater.

Serbia's state power company, EPS, said crews were doing all they could to prevent any further damage to the plant. Damage to the mine alone is estimated at more than 100 million Euros ($137 million).

Serbia's energy minister, Aleksandar Antic, appealed to people to conserve power, calling the threat to the plant "very serious."

The floods and landslides raised fears about the estimated 1 million land mines planted during Bosnia's 1992-95 war. Nearly 120,000 of the unexploded devices remain in more than 9,400 carefully marked minefields. But the weather toppled warning signs and, in many cases, dislodged the mines themselves.

Beyond the immediate danger to Bosnians, any loose mines could also create an international problem if floodwaters carry the explosives downstream. Experts warned that mines could travel through half of southeast Europe or get stuck in the turbines of a hydroelectric dam.

The United Nations reports that over 110 million land-mines of various types - plus millions more unexploded bombs, shells and grenades - remain hidden around the world, in at least 68 countries.

From the air, the northeastern third of Bosnia resembled a huge muddy lake, with houses, roads and rail lines submerged. Officials say about a million people - more than a quarter of the country's population - live in the worst-affected areas.

Residents told stories of narrow escapes from injury or death:

Mesan Ikanovic said. "I ran out of the house barefoot, carrying children in my arms." Ikanovic said 10 minutes separated him and his family from likely death. He carried his 7-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son to safety.

More than 10,000 people have already been rescued from the town of Bijeljina in northeast Bosnia. Trucks, buses and private cars were heading north with volunteers and tons of aid collected by people in cities outside the disaster zone.

The Bosnian Army said it had 1,500 troops helping on the ground. But many bridges have been washed away, leaving communities dependent on airlifts.

Helicopters from the European Union, Slovenia and Croatia were also aiding rescue efforts.

Large parts of eastern Croatia were underwater too, with several villages cut off and hundreds still fleeing the flooded zone in boats and trucks. Refugees were being housed in sports halls and schools, and aid centers were set up to distribute medicine, food, blankets and clothing.

The Raiffeisen Investment Group said in a note to investors that preliminary estimates are nearly 1.3 billion Euros ($1.8 billion) for Bosnia alone. Bosnian President Bakir Izetbegovic also said damages are in the billions.

In neighboring Serbia, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic has said damages could range up to 1.5 billion Euros ($2 billion).

Both countries have already begun talks with the EU for getting international help with reconstruction efforts. Separately, Bosnia's Serb region is talking with the Russians.

The flooding affected 40 percent of Bosnia, Foreign Minister Zlatko Lagumdzija said. It wrecked the main agriculture industry in the northern flatlands, wiping out infrastructure, farms, buildings and homes. One quarter of the country's 4 million people have been affected by record floods and landslides.

In addition, Bosnia's infrastructure minister said 3,500 kilometers (2,200 miles) of roads have been destroyed or damaged and 30 percent of railway lines are still unusable.

"This country has not experienced such a natural cataclysm ever," Lagumdzija said Wednesday.

Bosnia has one of the lowest gross domestic products in Europe and an unemployment rate of up to 44 percent. Almost no one has property insurance, meaning many residents lost virtually everything.

On Wednesday, a mine exploded near the northern village of Cerik, where the flooding had moved one of the more than 9,000 minefields left over from Bosnia's 1992-95 war. Nobody was hurt.

Serbia, like much of the Balkans, is poor. The country's economy has failed to fully recover following the wars and international sanctions in the 1990s. The unemployment rate officially stands at 20 percent, but is much higher in reality.

Associated Press writers Aida Cerkez in Sarajevo, Marko Drobnjakovic in Veliki Crljeni, Serbia; Almir Alic in Doboj, Bosnia; Amel Emric in Brcko, Bosnia; and Sulejman Klokoqi in Horozovine, Bosnia contributed to this report. Jovana Gec reported from Belgrade, Serbia. Irena Knezevic contributed from Banja Luka, Bosnia, Jovana Gec reported from Belgrade, Serbia. Irena Knezevic contributed from Banja Luka, Bosnia.

Photo: A man holds his dog during the evacuation from floods in Obrenovac, some 30 kilometers (18 miles) southwest of Belgrade Serbia, May 17. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

 

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