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Flood victims warned of toxic sludge

Roermond - Evacuees from the Netherlands' worst natural disaster in nearly half a century began to make their way home through mud-splattered streets yesterday, as river levels threatening key dykes receded.

But tens of thousands faced spending the weekend in makeshift refuges, as government and local authorities checked on weakened dykes.

Meanwhile, water levels on the Rhine, Meuse and Waal rivers are receding at a rate of 30cm (12in) a day.

Residents of Roermond, in the southern province of Limburg, returned to find hosepipes pumping filthy water from windows and doors.

One resident, Ret Pals, whose home was marooned in a muddy lake, said: "They must build a new and bigger dyke. They should flood The Hague. Then we'll see what the government does. When the dyke burst, the water streamed through the house, washing away the bath, the sink and the toilet."

Among the first to go home was Rene de Boer, who was sceptical of government promises of swift action to prevent future flooding, claiming: "It'll just get worse year by year. We're caught between the Meuse and the Rhine. If we build higher dykes to the south more water will come through Roermond. There's no room here to build new dykes."

The authorities urged those going home to avoid handling sludge, which could contain poisonous metals such as lead, zinc and cadmium that have leeched from the rivers coming from Europe's industrial heartlands.

In Roermond, sandbags littering the streets, pavements and gardens were gradually being carted away in lorries. At the riverfront tractor engines, roaring at full throttle, were used as makeshift generators to pump water back into the Meuse.

The week-long crisis has sparked intense criticism of the authorities and green lobbyists, for delaying work to strengthen this low-lying country's water defences.

Up to 250,000 people were this week forced to evacuate as ancient dykes threatened to give way under pressure from several rivers which were swelled by heavy rainfall in Germany, France and Belgium.

However, the strict Reformed Congregational Church was in no doubt about the root cause of the catastrophe.

"This is God's punishment for our injustices and lack of faith. He is shaking us awake in our blindness and deafness."