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France declares storms 'national disaster'

1 March 10 10:41 GMT

France has declared a national disaster after violent storms battered parts of the country leaving death and destruction in their wake.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon said the move would release funds to help communities rebuild.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has arrived at the storm-battered Atlantic coast, where at least 47 people died.

As the storm swept north-eastwards across Western Europe, others died in Portugal, Spain, Belgium and Germany.

Many of those on the French coast drowned, while those elsewhere were hit by parts of buildings or falling trees.

Power out

"It's a national disaster and my first thoughts go to the victims and to their families, to whom I want to express the government's and the nation's condolences," Mr Fillon said.

"The priority now is to make all the homeless people safe, all the people who are still threatened by the rising waters."

He said flood prevention dykes would be strengthened.

Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said nearly 10,000 emergency staff were working on the west coast on Monday morning, to search for and help survivors.

He told France-Info radio that the death toll would "doubtless" rise as rescue workers made house-to-house visits.

As many as 30 people are thought to be missing.

The Atlantic storm, named Xynthia, smashed into the western coasts of France, Portugal and Spain on Sunday, with torrential rain driven by winds of up to 140km/h (87mph).

The weather system has swept north-eastwards into Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. There have also been reports of high winds in the Swiss Alps.

In France, Xynthia put five of the country's 95 departments on red alert - only the second such warning since a new emergency system was introduced in 2001.

More than a million homes in France have lost electricity, from the Brittany peninsula in the west to the highlands of the Massif Central.

Worst affected have been the Vendee and Charente-Maritime regions on the western coast.

Huge waves and strong gusts battered many coastal towns, flooding inland areas and destroying buildings.

Residents took to their roofs in the Vendee region and police helicopters were in action trying to locate and rescue them.

French national power company EDF said half a million customers were still without power at nightfall on Sunday, AFP news agency reported.

Mr Fillon said it would take several days to restore power everywhere.

Falling trees

In Germany, a man was killed and his wife injured when a tree fell on their car in the Black Forest region, AFP reported.

A female jogger in the western town of Bergheim, and a man in Belgium, were also killed by falling trees.

Earlier on Sunday two Spanish men died when a tree crushed their car near Burgos. A Spanish woman was killed by a falling wall in Galicia, and a Portuguese boy was killed by a tree in Paredes.

Air France said 100 of its flights had been cancelled from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.

Wind speeds hit 175km/h at the top of the Eiffel Tower, French radio reported.

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