Continent suffers in a summer of extremes

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Extreme weather is devastating two regions of Europe, with at least five people reported killed by storms in Austria and Switzerland, while scores of fires rage in Portugal.

Hundreds of towns and villages were cut off yesterday as flooding and heavy rain continued to sweep through Austria, Switzerland and south Germany.

In Switzerland two firemen were killed in a mudslide and hundreds of residents in the canton of Lucerne were evacuated from their homes after rivers burst their banks. The floods stopped rail services through the Alps towards Italy and forced major roads to be closed.

In Austria, the army was called in yesterday to fortify flood defences. Two people were killed by rain-induced avalanches and several people in an apartment block in the town of Reuthe were injured after flooding caused a gas explosion. One person died in a rockslide in the Tyrol.

In Innsbruck, homes in the town centre were evacuated as the authorities waited for the river Inn to burst its banks.

In southern Germany, police said the resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen was wholly cut off by flooding that had forced the closure of the main Munich to Stuttgart autobahn. Rescue teams in helicopters evacuated people from their homes. Shipping on the Rhine was halted after water levels rose.

Officials said the flooding was expected to worsen as flood water swept towards the Danube.

Fires continued to rage across a parched Portugal, with weather forecasters warning of "maximum risk" of fire throughout the country. Police arrested four young people, two of them 14 years old, suspected of arson, and recovered a lighter used to start the fires. One of the suspects, an unemployed man, was a former firefighter.

The worst blazes destroyed houses outside the central town of Coimbra, home of Portugal's oldest university, where more than 300 firefighters battled to douse flames. Three firefighting planes flew in yesterday from Germany, following an appeal over the weekend from Portugal's President Jorge Sampaio for help "to fight this terrible tragedy".

The fire moved into Coimbra suburbs after consuming nearby woodland, destroying houses and forcing scores of people to flee.

Hundreds of armed forces are mobilised to help some 2,300 firefighters operating nationwide. EU countries have sent 14 water-dumping planes.

The drought that has afflicted most of Portugal for months, and unusually high summer temperatures, are set to continue. President Sampaio has declared a national disaster, and asked employers to release volunteer firefighters. Authorities said 16 people had died, including 11 firefighters.

In Spain, fires in Galicia were being brought under control yesterday, but more than a dozen still raged. The regional government said a high number of fires had been started deliberately.