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Friday, May 8, 1998 Published at 07:53 GMT 08:53 UK

World: Europe

Italy argues over mud slide tragedy
image: [ An Italian firefighter in Sarno directs rescue operations behind a bulldozer ]
An Italian firefighter in Sarno directs rescue operations behind a bulldozer

As rescue workers in Italy continue clean-up operations after the devastating mud slides which swept through an area near Naples, a major row is developing about who is responsible for the disaster.

At least 77 people have died, about 200 are still missing and thousands have been left homeless after two days of torrential rain.

The hardest hit towns were Sarno, Quindici and Siano, all south of Naples.

Volunteers with buckets and shovels have been searching rivers of mud up to two metres deep.

Row over blame

The rising casualty toll has prompted the authorities to point the finger at past corruption in local government, when a blind eye, they say, was turned to unchecked property development in zones of high risk.

Local mayors say the regional government did not prepare for the tragedy.

Regional officials blame the central government for not funding prevention efforts. And civil defence officials say government funds were never applied.

[ image: The Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro]
The Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro
The Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, has warned against "an immediate search for the guilty party" as he put it.

President Scalfaro said that the consequences of flooding in the southern Italy should be tackled before efforts are made to find anybody who might be to blame for the disaster.

Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro: "Tackle the floods before apportioning blame." (In Italian) (44")
However, the Italian Secretary of State for Civil Protection, Franco Barberi, who is to make a statement on Thursday in parliament, said that one of the causes of the disaster was the fact that forestry maintenance had been progressively abandoned in the region, "as in the rest of Italy."

The chief of Italy's civil protection agency, Andrea Todisco, said many homes in the area had been built too close to rivers or in areas prone to landslides.

President Scalfaro is cutting short a visit to Sweden, saying he wants to be with the Italian people at what he called this terribly sad moment.

Not a 'natural' disaster

Environmental groups such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said the disaster "was not a natural calamity but a disaster caused by decades of ransacking the land and sprawling construction."

Fulco Pratesi, head of the WWF in Italy, said that 24% of the area is at risk from land- and mud slides and flooding," but nothing has been done to prevent it happening".

Environmentalists say that much of the responsibility lies with the right-wing Christian Democrat Party that governed Italy for almost 50 years, until 1994, when it broke up amid corruption allegations.

It has been accused of allowing unregulated property development by the Naples Mafia, the Camorra, to go ahead unhindered.

There are also reports of complaints regarding the rescue operations. Many residents said that rescue efforts were slow and unco-ordinated.

About 65% of Italy is classed as being at risk from landslides. Almost 3,500 people have died in similar incidents in Italy.

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