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Wednesday, 14 August, 2002, 19:59 GMT 20:59 UK
Critical hours for inundated Prague
Sandbag in front of the Old Town Square
Sandbags are standing ready in the Old Town Square
The Czech capital is on a knife-edge as people wait to see whether the swollen river Vltava will break over flood barriers and engulf the historic centre of Prague.

The river reached its highest point so far on Wednesday afternoon and authorities said the coming hours would be a critical test of the hastily constructed flood defences.


All of the flood barriers are at their maximum level

River authority spokesman Vaclav Baca
Water levels, which had been rising at a rate of about 10 to 15 centimetres per hour, are now said to be increasing more slowly.

The rain has now stopped, but correspondents say the situation remains very confused and the authorities are at something of a loss to predict the next stage of the disaster.

Floods have swept across much of the country, killing nine people and forcing 200,000 nationwide to be evacuated.

The government has deployed 4,000 soldiers and 15,000 police, firemen and volunteers are participating in the emergency efforts.

Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda has said his government would welcome offers of aid from abroad to help the devastation to the country's already fragile economy.

Floods have devastated swathes of other central and East European countries, killing about 90 people:

  • In Austria, seven people have died in floods as the River Danube has swollen to record levels. Vienna, Salzburg and much of the Upper and Lower Austria regions are affected.

  • In Slovakia, a state of alert was declared as the Danube threatened to flood the capital, Bratislava.

  • In Germany, at least 12 people have been killed and much of Dresden is flooded. A state of emergency has been declared in several Bavarian districts and Chancellor Schroeder has promised federal aid to victims of the flood.

  • The Black Sea coast of Russia has been particularly hard hit, with around 60 deaths over the course of the weekend.

Fighting a phenomenon

On Wednesday morning, water swept into the basement of Prague's National Theatre.

River water seeped through sandbags protecting the residential Smichov district and elsewhere water has been bubbling up from the sewers.

"It is the beginning of the worst moment," said river authority spokesman Vaclav Baca. "All of the flood barriers are at their maximum level".

Woman evacuated from her home in Prague
Rescuers continue to evacuate people from their homes
But, according to Mr Baca, the situation is set to improve, as less water flows into the Vltava from the Orlicka reservoir and the levels of the Berounka tributary river decrease.

According to water experts, about 5% to 8% of the city has been inundated, making it the worst flooding in 200 years.

Prague Mayor Igor Nemec said: "We're fighting a phenomenon".

If the river does burst the barriers, it will inundate the spectacular Old Town Square and several historic monasteries.

At Prague Zoo, about 400 animals were moved to higher ground.

Zookeepers put down a 35-year-old elephant and a hippopotamus. A gorilla is feared drowned.

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, new areas of the city were evacuated, as earlier hopes that the floods would abate were dashed.

The city authorities have asked people to take enough food, drink and clothing with them for four to five days.

Nationwide crisis

The floods have already inundated southern parts of the Czech Republic.

Road and rail lines have been cut, and towns and cities swamped.

There are fears of an ecological disaster in the South Bohemian town of Strakonice, where oil from a factory has leaked into the water supply.

The towns of Plzen and Ceske Budejovice - famous centres of Czech beer production - are beginning to recover after being affected earlier in the week.

But the important industrial towns of Usti nad Labem and Mlada Boleslav expect the worst is still to come.

Evacuation orders have been issued for 3,000 people in parts of Luznice na Taborsku and overnight more than 5,000 people were evacuated from in and around Znojmo na Dyji.


 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Jonathan Charles
"Noone knows how this crisis will end"
The BBC's Rob Broomby
"All day long the rescue workers have been in operation here"
Tamara Klablenova of the Czech Red Cross
"200,000 people have been evacuated across the whole country"

European havoc

Germany ravaged

Prague drama

Freak phenomenon?

FORUM

TALKING POINT
See also:

14 Aug 02 | Europe
14 Aug 02 | Europe
14 Aug 02 | Europe
13 Aug 02 | Business
13 Aug 02 | Entertainment
10 Aug 02 | Europe
09 Aug 02 | Europe
09 Aug 02 | Europe
13 Aug 02 | Europe
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