by Aleksandra NIKSIC
BELGRADE, May 17, 2014 (AFP) - The heaviest rains in more than a century have sparked floods across Bosnia and Serbia, claiming at least 16 lives and leading to the evacuation of some 15,000, officials said Saturday. "Six bodies were found in the northern Bosnian town of Doboj after floods started to withdraw from the streets. Unfortunately, this is probably not the final toll," Milorad Dodik, president of Serb-run entity in Bosnia, told reporters.
Another victim drowned in the town of Samac after falling from some stairs, police chief Gojko Vasic was quoted by Fena news agency as saying. And the bodies of two elderly women were found in the town of Maglaj after the waters withdrew, the civil protection chief there told reporters. Four victims were found in Bosnia and three in Serbia on Friday. In Serbia, "rescuers have started recovering dead bodies from flooded areas, but we will not make the number public before the complete withdrawal of the water," Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic told reporters. More than 15,000 people have been evacuated from a number of towns throughout Serbia.
Hardest hit was the town of Obrenovac, some 30 kilometres (20 miles) north of Belgrade, where all 20,000 residents were being evacuated amid warnings of further flooding, Predrag Maric of the emergency services said. Reporters were banned from entering the town, but a local television channel broadcast footage from a helicopter showing that most parts of the city were flooded, with water swamping the lower floors of six-storey buildings. Water defences gave way outside Obrenovac near a power plant that produces about half of Serbia's electricity, prompting authorities to urge citizens to limit their use of electricity.
Some 95,000 homes in Serbia and 60,000 in Bosnia had no power at all, authorities said. Maric urged citizens and companies to provide humanitarian aid. Sirens wailed in the nearby town of Baric as police ordered its some 7,000 inhabitants to evacuate. An AFP photographer saw military and police helicopters evacuating women and children, while many people were leaving the town by car. Others could be seen walking towards buses carrying basic belongings.
- 'Floods carried everything' -
Belgrade has opened 13 centres to accept thousands of evacuees. In a Belgrade sport centre turned into a shelter, some 400 people sat on improvised beds, recounting their rescues. Svetlan Joksimovic, 74, said he was forced to leave as "floods were carrying everything." "I do not know what happened to my cattle, I released the animals so they could swim," he told AFP in despair.
Danka Kistovic said a neighbour pulled her out of her flooded house using a rope. "I couldn't move anywhere, water flooded everything. I couldn't go out any other way, so a neighbour came to me and put a rope around my waist, pulling me slowly towards their terrace where rescuers picked me up later," she told AFP. A rescuer said teams were evacuating people even from upper floors that had been flooded. Many people were unable to track their family members since the authorities had not had time to compile lists of those evacuated.
- Volunteers set up flood defences -
Thousands of volunteers from Belgrade, Novi Sad and other towns went overnight to help set up flood defences in the western town of Sabac, where the Sava river has risen well above historic levels following the worst rains since records began in the late 19th century. "Dozens of other cities throughout Serbia were devastated by floods," Maric said. Over the border in Bosnia, local authorities have begun evacuating five villages around the eastern town of Bjeljina, which has also lost electricity.
In the region of Zenica a number of villages were cut off so rescuers, including from neighbouring Croatia and Slovenia, were using some 15 helicopters to evacuate people. Landslides destroyed dozens of homes. The European Commission said 14 EU countries were sending aid including helicopters and motorboats, as well as food and medicine, to Bosnia and Serbia. Downstream in Croatia, officials were on high alert amid fears that the Sava will overflow and flood the east of the country. Both Vucic and Dodik expressed gratitude for the rescue teams and equipment sent by Russia and several EU states.