Hundreds feared dead as flash floods bring devastation to Algiers

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At least 300 people are feared to have died in Algiers when a devastating flood struck the city, washing away roads and flattening homes after two days of torrential rain.

At least 300 people are feared to have died in Algiers when a devastating flood struck the city, washing away roads and flattening homes after two days of torrential rain.

Scores of other people are believed to have died elsewhere in Algeria in the worst floods in more than 40 years. The government declared a "national catastrophe" yesterday and appealed for international aid. Questions were being asked in the Algerian press about the haphazard development of roads and dwellings in western Algiers, which helped to turn two days of incessant rain into an immense and murderous flash food on Saturday afternoon.

Witnesses said that a motorway, constructed 30 years ago along the bed of a river, turned in a few seconds into a raging torrent, bringing a wall of water 12 feet high into the heart of the poor residential district of Bab el-Oued. Cars, trucks and buses were swept aside, the asphalt of the motorway was uprooted and houses and apartment blocks flattened as the river sprang back to devastating life, carrying vast quantities of floodwater from the mountains north of Algiers into the west of the city.

As the waters abated yesterday, witnesses said the motorway looked like a beach, covered in sand and gravel and littered with half-buried cars and buses, which had been twisted into fantastic shapes by the impact of the floodwater. There were fears last night that many more bodies would be found inside these vehicles. "In the next few days, the old oued [river] will give up its secrets and it looks like it will have taken a heavy vengeance," one old man told the French news agency Agence France Presse.

Algiers, with a population of 3.5 million, bore the brunt of the disaster, with dozens of people dying when their skimpily constructed homes collapsed.

The narrow streets of the Bab el-Oued district were left buried in several feet of mud and rubble. Similar floods were reported to have caused scores of deaths in towns west of the capital and in the city of Oran.

Algerian newspapers said that the disaster could not be blamed only on the "caprices of the heavens". L'Expression said the country was paying the price for the bad planning decisions of successive national and city governments and for the complete absence of planning and safety controls for cheap housing.

"Many lives could have been spared if our local politicians had abandoned their favourite pastimes of let-things-drift and couldn't-care-less," the newspaper said. Even the Interior Minister, Yazid Zerhoni, admitted that there were "lessons to learn". Most of the collapsed buildings had been constructed "in an anarchic way over storm drains and river culverts", he said.

The torrential rains of Friday and Saturday followed a period of persistent drought, which had threatened to ruin Algerian farmers. Prayers had been said for rain in mosques all over Algeria on Thursday and on Friday morning.

Witnesses said that there was little sign of flooding in Algiers until a wave of water "four metres high" (13 feet) roared down the motorway, which was built in the early 1970s to relieve traffic problems on the western side of the city.

The motorway was built over the course of the Frais Vallon river, a frequently dry river bed that brought water down from the hills at times of heavy ran. Culverts and canals were dug to provide alternative routes for floodwater but they proved completely inadequate on Saturday afternoon.

One resident of the district said: "There was suddenly a huge wave, which swept away all in its path and the river had returned as if by vengeance."

Local people were desperately trying to dig out some of the buried cars as the water receded, looking for their missing relatives. Officials warned that the final death toll was likely to rise above the official figure of about 300.