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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Death toll from European flooding passes 180 as rescuers search debris

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The death toll from flooding in Germany and Belgium climbed above 180 on Sunday after rescue workers dug deeper into debris left by receding waters.

Police put the toll from the hard-hit Ahrweiler area of western Germany’s Rhineland-Palatinate state at 110 and said they feared the number may still rise.

In neighbouring North Rhine-Westphalia state, Germany’s most populous, 46 people were confirmed dead, including four firefighters.

Belgium has confirmed 31 casualties.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Schuld, a village near Ahrweiler that was devastated by the flooding, on Sunday.

She said she came away with “a real picture of, I must say, the surreal, ghostly situation.”

“It is shocking — I would almost say that the German language barely has words for the devastation that has been wreaked,” she said at a news conference in a nearby town.

Mrs Merkel said authorities will work to “set the world right again in this beautiful region, step by step,” and her Cabinet will approve an immediate and medium-term financial aid programme on Wednesday.

Pope Francis offered a prayer for the flood victims and for support of the “efforts of all to help those who suffered great damage”.

“I express my closeness to the populations of Germany, Belgium and Holland, hit by catastrophic flooding,” he said in his first public appearance to the faithful in St Peter’s Square after major surgery.

“May the Lord welcome the deceased and comfort the family members.”

There was also flooding on Saturday in the German-Czech border area, across the country from where last week’s floods hit, and in Germany’s south-eastern corner and over the border in Austria.

Some 65 people were evacuated from their homes in Germany’s Berchtesgaden area after the Ache River swelled. At least one person was killed.

A flash flood swept through the nearby Austrian town of Hallein late Saturday, but there were no reports of casualties.

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said on Twitter that heavy rain and storms were causing serious damage in several parts of Austria.

German finance minister Olaf Scholz said he will propose a package of immediate aid at a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, telling the Bild am Sonntag newspaper that more than 300 million euros (£257 million) will be needed.

And he said that officials must start setting up a rebuilding programme which, from experience with previous flooding, will be in the billions of euros.

Meanwhile, the front-runner to succeed Angela Merkel in Germany’s September election has apologised for a scene in which he was seen laughing in the background as the country’s president delivered a statement on the floods.

Armin Laschet, the candidate of Merkel’s centre-right Union bloc, on Saturday, visited Erfstadt, which was the scene of a dramatic rescue effort after the ground gave way, with president Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

While Mr Steinmeier gave a statement to reporters after the visit, Mr Laschet and a group of others stood in the background. Photos showed him turning to someone else and laughing.

Mr Laschet on Saturday tweeted: “The fate of those affected, which we heard about in many conversations, is important to us. So I regret all the more the impression that arose from a conversational situation. That was inappropriate and I am sorry.”

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