Sicilian mudslides leave 20 dead

Rivers of mud unleashed by heavy rains overnight flooded parts of the Sicilian city of Messina, leaving at least 20 people dead yesterday while sweeping away cars, collapsing buildings and driving hundreds of people out of their homes.

Rescue teams with sniffer dogs searched for several people missing after the mud swamped entire villages and suburbs of Messina on the island's eastern coast, Mayor Giuseppe Buzzanca said. Many roads and railways have been damaged, hampering rescue efforts.

Residents and firefighters used shovels and bulldozers to clear the mud, which in some areas reached as high as the door handles of cars and homes. At least 40 people were taken to hospital, many of them transported by sea, the civil protection chief Guido Bertolaso said. Authorities gave varying numbers for people missing, ranging from five to 20.

The government in Rome declared a state of emergency for the area, freeing funds for emergency relief and reconstruction. Officials blamed the overnight storm, which unleashed 25cm (10in) of rain in just three hours. But they also acknowledged that deforestation and unregulated development had weakened the soil on the island and contributed to the mudslides from Messina's surrounding hills and cliffs.

They were Italy's deadliest landslides since 1998, when a rain-drenched mountain near Naples unleashed a torrent of mud that submerged villages and killed 150. Messina was wiped out once before by a 1908 earthquake and tsunami that killed some 84,000 people.