Prague evacuates 50,000 as torrential rains sweep Europe

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Fifty thousand people were being evacuated from Prague late last night as the worst flood for more than a century bore down on the city. Part of the medieval centre could be under water by the end of today, the mayor warned.

Fifty thousand people were being evacuated from Prague as the worst flood for more than a century bore down on the city. Part of the medieval centre could be under water by the end of today, the mayor warned.

At least 75 people have already been killed in flooding across Europe as torrential rains swept away Russian tourists, set off landslides in Germany, and shut down shipping on the Danube in Austria. Rain fell in wind-whipped sheets overnight in Vienna, bringing dams in villages west of the Austrian capital to breaking point.

The Danube was beginning to punch through dams in the town of Ybbs in Lower Austria province, Austrian radio reported, and more than 1,000 buildings in Salzburg were under water.

At least seven Czechs have died in 10 days of flooding. In Prague's Mala Strana district, part of the historic city centre, local people rushed to help soldiers and police who were making dams out of sandbags. Passers-by who had come to watch joined in. A few struck up patriotic songs as they heaved the sandbags on to wheelbarrows.

Huge crowds gathered on the Charles Bridge to watch. Below, the river Vltava was a raging torrent which had already burst its banks. Tables and chairs from riverside bars were half-submerged. All you could see of one of the islands in the middle of the city were the tree-tops.

The authorities warned last night that they would have to open the flood gates of dams that have been holding back the waters from Prague. The flooding has become so heavy that the dams can no longer contain it. Those living in low-lying areas with cars were ordered to drive out of town immediately. Others were to be evacuated to schools and shelters.

The Prime Minister, Vlad-amir Spidla, declared a state of emergency in Prague and several other cities across Bohemia. There will be fears of damage to the capital's historic centre, one of the best preserved in Europe.

More pressing will be fears for the safety of people living in the flooded areas across Europe. In Russia, at least 58 people have been killed already. Giant cranes hoisted ruined cars and other debris out of the Black Sea as clean-up crews scoured beaches in a search for bodies yesterday.

As many as 4,000 tourists were still trapped in Shirokaya Balka, a scenic coastal village that was devastated by the flooding, the Interfax news agency reported. Thousands of Russian tourists who had descended on the coast for their summer holidays were caught in the surprise flooding.

Austria saw its first three victims in more than a week of unprecedented flooding. In Salzburg province, a firefighter was swept away by a river in Mariapfarr and a man's body was found floating in a flooded cellar in Hallein. The third was a 48-year-old man who was crushed in a landslide near the village of Kirchheim in Upper Austria province.

"The scene is catastrophic,"said Wilfried Weissgerber, a national fire brigade commander. About 50 miles of railway track was under water across Austria.

In Germany, three people died, including an eight-year-old girl who was hit by an uprooted tree. A woman was killed trying to rescue her belongings from her flooded cellar while a police officer died after crashing her car.

Bavaria and Baden-Werttemberg states declared emergencies as floods submerged houses and set off landslides.

Firefighters in the eastern city of Leipzig were called out 300 times in the early hours yesterday as residents tried to sandbag their homes.

In northern Italy, where unusually heavy rain and hail ravaged grapevines, olives, flowers, tobacco and other crops last week, the nation's largest agriculture group estimated the damage at euro 300m. (£192m).The Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi has approved ¤50m (£32m) in emergency aid.