Villagers evacuated as forest fire spreads near Athens

ATHENS (Reuters) – People were evacuated from two villages west of Athens on Monday as firefighters battled a new blaze in a forested area that was devastated by flames last week.

Authorities ordered the protective clearance of the villages of Vilia and Profitis Ιlias, about 50 km (30 miles) from the Greek capital, as strong winds fanned the blaze. There were no immediate reports of injuries.

More than 500 wildfires have broken out across Greece since the beginning of August, ravaging swathes of forest and forcing the evacuation of thousands of people.

The biggest one, on the island of Evia near Athens, burned for days before it was contained.

Greece, Turkey, Tunisia and other countries across the Mediterranean region have seen some of their highest temperatures in decades this summer.

A total of 85 firefighters, 13 helicopters and eight water bombing planes were sent in to contain the wildfire west of Athens on Monday, a fire brigade official said.

More than 9,000 hectares of thick pine forest were burned in the same area last week.

(Reporting by Lefteris Papadimas; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Afghan protests spread to Kabul in early challenge to Taliban

KABUL (Reuters) – Protests against the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan spread to more cities on Thursday, including the capital Kabul, and a witness said several people were killed when the militants fired on a crowd in Asadabad in the eastern province of Kunar.

“Our flag, our identity,” a crowd of men and women waving black, red and green national flags shouted in Kabul, a video posted on social media showed, on the day Afghanistan celebrates independence from British control in 1919.

A witness reported gunshots near the rally, but they appeared to be Taliban firing into the air.

Marchers chanted “God is greatest.” At some protests elsewhere, media have reported people tearing down the white flag of the Taliban.

A Taliban spokesman was not immediately available for comment.

Some demonstrations are small, but combined with a scramble by thousands of people to flee the country via Kabul airport they underline the challenge the Taliban will face to govern.

The Islamist movement conquered Afghanistan at lightning speed as foreign troops withdrew, surprising even its leaders and leaving them to fill power vacuums in many places.

Since seizing Kabul on Sunday, the Taliban have presented a more moderate face, saying they want peace, will not take revenge against old enemies and will respect the rights of women within the framework of Islamic law.

During their previous rule from 1996-2001, they severely restricted women’s rights, staged public executions and blew up ancient Buddhist statues.

In Asadabad, several people were killed during a rally, but it was unclear if the casualties resulted from Taliban firing or from a stampede that it triggered.

“Hundreds of people came out on the streets,” witness Mohammed Salim said. “At first I was scared and didn’t want to go but when I saw one of my neighbors joined in, I took out the flag I have at home.

“Several people were killed and injured in the stampede and firing by the Taliban.”

Protests flared in the city of Jalalabad and a district of Paktia province, also both in the east.

On Wednesday, Taliban fighters fired at protesters waving flags in Jalalabad, killing three, witnesses and media reported.

“Salute those who carry the national flag and thus stand for dignity of the nation,” First Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who is trying to rally opposition to the Taliban, said on Twitter.

Saleh said on Tuesday he was the “legitimate caretaker president” in Afghanistan after President Ashraf Ghani fled.

In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Ahmad Massoud, leader of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, based in an old anti-Taliban stronghold northeast of Kabul, called for Western support.

“I write from the Panjshir Valley today, ready to follow in my father’s footsteps, with mujahideen fighters who are prepared to once again take on the Taliban,” wrote Massoud, the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, a veteran guerrilla leader killed by suspected al Qaeda militants in 2001.

Other former Afghan leaders, including ex-president Hamid Karzai, have held talks with the Taliban.

U.S. President Joe Biden said the Taliban must decide if they want international recognition.

“I think they’re going through a sort of existential crisis about: Do they want to be recognized by the international community as being a legitimate government? I’m not sure they do,” Biden said in TV interview.

AIRPORT CHAOS

Kabul has been generally calm, but 12 people have been killed in and around the airport amid chaotic scenes, a NATO and a Taliban official said. The deaths were caused either by gun shots or stampedes, according to the Taliban official.

In one incident captured on social media, a small girl was hoisted over the airport’s high perimeter wall and handed to a U.S. soldier, underlining the desperation many people feel.

Gunmen fired into the air on Thursday at several entrances, scattering crowds including women clutching babies. It was not clear if the men firing were Taliban or security staff helping U.S. forces inside the airport.

The Taliban are “keeping their word” by providing foreign powers with support in evacuating their nationals, a Taliban official said.

“We are facilitating safe exit passage not just for foreigners but also to Afghans,” the official told Reuters.

U.N. agencies and international aid groups appealed for $800 million more in humanitarian funding.

About 8,000 people have been flown out of Kabul since Sunday, a Western security official said.

Under a pact negotiated by former President Donald Trump’s administration, the United States agreed to withdraw its forces in exchange for a Taliban guarantee they would not let Afghanistan be used to launch terrorist attacks.

The Taliban also agreed not to attack foreign forces as they leave.

Biden said U.S. forces would remain until all Americans were evacuated, even if that meant staying past an Aug. 31 U.S. deadline for withdrawal.

(Reporting by Kabul and Washington newsrooms; Writing by Lincoln Feast and Robert Birsel; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Jane Merriman, Nick Macfie, Mike Collett-White and Catherine Evans)

Wildfire breaks out east of Rome, locals evacuated

ROME (Reuters) – Locals were evacuated from small communities around 40 km (25 miles) east of Rome on Friday when a wildfire broke out as the Italian capital faced temperatures of around 37 degrees Celsius (99 Fahrenheit).

Swathes of southern Italy have been plagued by wildfires in recent weeks, with flames ravaging woodland in Calabria, in the toe of the Italian boot, and on the islands of Sicily and Sardinia.

Wednesday saw the temperature reach almost 49 Celsius in south-eastern Sicily, reported as the highest temperature ever recorded in Europe.

The heatwave is now moving north and overnight 25 families were evacuated from their homes as fires spread through the nature reserve of Monte Catillo, near the Rome suburb of Tivoli, firefighters said in a tweet.

Around 30 residents of a home for poor children and orphans were also evacuated to escape the flames.

Wildfires also broke out overnight near the town of Otranto, in Italy’s southern heel, firefighters said. A nearby seaside resort was evacuated due to the choking smoke and the coastal road heading south from Otranto was closed to traffic.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi on Thursday promised financial help for communities hit by the fires, and a plan of action to replant forest areas and make the Italian countryside more resilient to natural disasters.

(Reporting by Gavin Jones; Editing by Angelo Amante and David Holmes)

Thousands evacuate fast-moving California wildfire; homes burn

By Fred Greaves

COLFAX, California (Reuters) -A rapidly spreading wildfire burned homes and forced thousands to evacuate in two heavily wooded counties northeast of Sacramento in Northern California on Wednesday, generating a towering plume of smoke visible from at least 70 miles (110 km) away.

The so-called River Fire scorched 1,400 acres (566 hectares) in Placer and Nevada counties, with 1,000 acres burnt within the first two hours, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said.

The River Fire was less than 100 miles (160 km) south of the enduring Dixie Fire, which according to Cal Fire has consumed 278,000 acres and was only 35% contained three weeks after it started.

Social media images showed the Dixie Fire on Wednesday had destroyed multiple structures in one section of Greenville, a town of about 800 people in Plumas County.

The River Fire was not at all contained, but officials said they expected cooler overnight weather and a reversal of the wind direction to help.

At least four homes were destroyed in Colfax, a Placer County town of 2,000 people about 50 miles (80 km) northeast of Sacramento, according to a Reuters witness. Officials said they would have an estimate of the property damage on Thursday.

At least 2,400 people had evacuated their homes in Placer County, and another 4,200 people were under evacuation orders in Nevada County, fire and law enforcement officials told a news conference.

Evacuation centers were established in both counties, and an animal shelter for pets was set up at a fairground.

“If you received an evacuation warning, please go. If you received an order, get out,” Placer County Sheriff Devon Bell told the news conference.

“Our hearts are with our communities, our friends, our neighbors who have been impacted by this incident,” Bell said.

Carrie Levine, a fire ecologist from nearby Grass Valley, said her family had evacuated even without an official warning because the fire was moving so fast.

“There’s a big column of smoke. It’s pretty dark, kind of like a purple, gray, eerie smoke. It’s in a pretty steep river canyon, and they really like to just blow up river canyons with the wind,” said Levine, who studies fire fuels and develops models for a private company.

Another expert urged people to evacuate because the area was particularly risky.

“In an analysis we did a couple years ago for an insurer, the Colfax/Auburn/Grass Valley area was one of the highest risk areas in the state for a catastrophic loss wildfire,” Crystal Kolden, a pyrogeographer at the University of California Merced, said on Twitter.

More than a dozen wildfires were burning around the state, which typically experiences peak fire season later in the year. California was on pace to suffer even more burnt acreage this year than last year, which was the worst fire season on record.

(Reporting by Fred Greaves in Colfax, California, and Daniel Trotta in Carlsbad, California)

Tourists, residents evacuated by boat in Greece as wildfires rage

By Angeliki Koutantou and Karolina Tagaris

ATHENS (Reuters) -Scores of people on the Greek island of Evia fled to the shore to be evacuated by boat on Wednesday as a rapidly spreading wildfire tore through surrounding pine forests, leaving gutted buildings in its wake.

The fire, worsened by changing winds, has forced authorities on the island near Athens to evacuate several villages since late Tuesday.

Coast guard vessels picked up at least 50 people who had been evacuated from a beach close to the seaside village of Rovies on Wednesday and transferred them to a ferry, an official said.

“It was burning all night. The forest has been destroyed, villages were burned. We left behind our homes, we left our pets,” Christina Katsini, a Rovies resident, told Skai TV.

Tassos Baltas, a volunteer rescuer, said it was “raining ashes in Halkida”, Evia’s capital, some 100 km (62 miles) away.

Fires that had threatened houses on the northern outskirts of Athens on Tuesday eased slightly. But with Greece facing its most severe heatwave in 30 years, the risk remained high for the next few days in most parts of the country, authorities said.

Temperatures hovered above 40 degrees Celsius (107 Fahrenheit) for the third day.

“The weather conditions are extreme,” Deputy Citizens’ Protection Minister Nikos Hardalias said in a televised address. “We should remain on alert. We should avoid any – but any – activity that could cause a fire.”

Reinforcements arrived from Cyprus, and firefighters from France and two aircraft from Sweden were expected by Thursday, a Civil Protection Authority spokesperson said.

Fires were also burning in Halkidiki in northern Greece, the Peloponnese, in the regions of Messinia and Mani, and in Ilia, close to Ancient Olympia, which was the site of the first Olympic Games and was ordered to be evacuated.

Europe has been experiencing extreme weather this summer, from heavy flooding in the north to severe heatwaves and fires in parts of the Mediterranean, with Turkey hit by its most intense blazes on record.

Athens residents were told to stay indoors as a thick cloud of smoke hung over the city.

Fires near the town of Varympompi, north of the capital, damaged scores of buildings and destroyed more than 80 cars after breaking out on Tuesday.

“I saved my pets, that’s why I stayed,” said one Varympompi resident, Panagiotis, standing among burned cars and blackened pine trees. “I have goosebumps just talking about it; all the homes around me burned, nothing’s left.”

(Additional reporting by Giorgos Moutafis and Lefteris Papadimas, Writing by Karolina Tagaris)

Forest fire closes in on Turkish power station

By Mert Ozkan and Tuvan Gumrukcu

MILAS, Turkey (Reuters) -A forest fire moved closer to a coal-fired power station in southwestern Turkey on Tuesday evening and wildfires raged near southern resorts for a seventh day as firefighting planes from Spain and Croatia joined the battle to quell them.

Eleven fires were still blazing, fanned by strong winds, temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius (104°F), and low humidity, officials said. Plumes of black smoke rose from hillsides and forests near the coastal resorts of Bodrum and Marmaris.

“The situation is very serious. The flames have come to the edge of the thermal power plant,” Muhammet Tokat, mayor of Milas to the east of the major resort Bodrum, said on Twitter.

He shared a video taken from a vessel at sea showing a fire blazing on a hillside under a night sky, a few hundred meters from the illuminated Kemerkoy power station and called for a plane or helicopter with night vision to be sent to the area.

Two firefighting planes from Spain and one from Croatia joined teams from Russia, Iran, Ukraine and Azerbaijan to battle blazes on Tuesday, after Turkey requested European support.

The mayors of the southern resort cities of Bodrum and Antalya have pleaded for more planes this week as the fires raged near Mediterranean and Aegean coasts.

A village near Milas was evacuated with flames engulfing houses and buildings, Reuters TV footage showed.

Opposition parties criticized President Tayyip Erdogan and his government for depleting firefighting resources over the years. Thousands also took to social media calling for Erdogan to step down, while others criticized the lack of resources and what they called inadequate preparations.

“To say it frankly, Turkey is not being managed,” said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). “The government of the (presidential) palace has rendered our state incapable.”

Responding to criticism that the government had rejected some offers of international help, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey had assessed many proposals, prioritizing offers of planes and helicopters.

He said some countries, including France and Greece, rescinded their offers because of their own needs and fires. Israel’s foreign ministry said it discussed the situation with Turkish officials but was told Turkey did not need assistance.

Turkey’s radio and television watchdog RTUK told broadcasters on Tuesday that negative coverage of the fires could encourage “an atmosphere of chaos”, harming the public’s and firefighters’ morale. It warned the media of the “harshest punishments” if they did not adhere to RTUK’s principles.

The heatwave that has fueled the fires came after months of exceptionally dry weather in Turkey’s southwest, according to maps issued by meteorological authorities.

Data from the European Forest Fire Information Service showed there have been three times as many fires as usual this year, while the more than 136,000 hectares burnt in Turkey were three times the area burnt on average in an entire year.

Eight people have been killed in a total of 156 wildfires which have erupted in the last week. There were no reports of further casualties on Tuesday.

The government is investigating the cause of the fires, including possible arson. Authorities caught one person who tried to light a fire outside a military compound in the southwestern province of Denizli, the Defense Ministry said.

Since Wednesday, thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes and some tourists fled their hotels by boat or by road, although Tourism Minister Mehmet Ersoy said holidaymakers had returned within hours.

(Reporting by Mert Ozkan, Mehmet Emin Caliskan in Marmaris and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem; Editing by Dominic Evans/Mark Heinrich and Grant McCool)

Three dead as wildfires blaze on southern Turkish coast

By Mert Ozkan

MANAVGAT, Turkey (Reuters) -Three people died in a forest fire in southern Turkey on Thursday where authorities were battling multiple blazes for a second day amid suspicions of arson, the country’s AFAD disaster agency and the agriculture minister said.

Dozens of villages as well as some hotels were evacuated, and television footage showed burnt buildings and people fleeing across fields as firefighters on the ground and in helicopters tried to contain a blaze in Manavgat, 75 km (45 miles) east of the Mediterranean resort of Antalya.

Officials have said that more than 60 wildfires have erupted across 17 provinces on Turkey’s Aegean and Mediterranean coasts this week, with the presidency vowing to hold to account those responsible for the “attacks.”

Of those wildfires, 36 have been contained, but firefighting efforts for the remaining 17 continue, with more than 140 people requiring treatment or suffering property damage, according to AFAD.

Agriculture Minister Bekir Pakdemirli said an 82-year-old man had been found dead during the evacuation of Kepezbeleni, 16 kilometers northeast of Manavgat, and two people were found dead in Degirmenli, 20 kilometers east of Manavgat.

He said 18 villages and districts had been evacuated in Antalya, along with 16 others in neighboring provinces of Adana and Mersin, as fires spread around Manavgat on Wednesday, fanned by strong winds in hot weather. Authorities also evacuated a Manavgat hospital.

Buildings including a hotel in the Aegean resort of Marmaris were evacuated due to the blaze, state broadcaster TRT Haber said. Footage showed two separate fires near residential areas in the Aegean summer hotspots of Bodrum, where another hotel was evacuated, and Didim.

Pakdemirli said 35 aircrafts, 457 vehicles, and 4,000 personnel were involved in firefighting efforts, as separate wildfires raged in the provinces of Osmaniye, Kayseri, Kocaeli, Adana, Mersin and Kutahya.

“Our struggle to contain (the fires) continues, and surely we will contain them. But this may take some time,” he said.

The timing of the various wildfires has raised concerns of arson, with the presidency’s communications director Fahrettin Altun saying investigations were launched to determine the cause of the fires.

“Those responsible will be held to account for the attacks they mounted on our nature and forests as soon as possible,” Altun said on Twitter.

Turkey’s southern Mediterranean coast is known for its scorching summer heat, which often causes wildfires. Officials have said the latest fires are the biggest to date.

Turkey has battled a series of disasters caused by extreme weather conditions this summer, including flash floods last week that killed six people in the Black Sea region.

(Additional reporting by Yesim Dikmen and Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul, Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara; Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Dominic Evans, Catherine Evans, Timothy Heritage and Raissa Kasolowsky)

Residents flee as winds fan massive wildfire in southern Turkey

ANKARA (Reuters) – A massive forest fire in southern Turkey spread to the town of Manavgat as the flames were fanned by strong winds on Wednesday, according to the local mayor, and TV footage showed residents running for their cars as streets were engulfed in smoke.

Footage showed plumes of black smoke rising from the forest around Manavgat, 75 km (45 miles) east of the resort city of Antalya, and Mayor Sukru Sozen said flames had spread as far as the town center, where many buildings were being evacuated.

“The fire has spread to the town center. It’s growing even more with the wind. It’s impossible for us to determine the size of the damage, there is damage in the villages too. We have not seen anything like this,” Sozen told broadcaster Haberturk.

Antalya Mayor Muhittin Bocek said the fire had started at four different points. He told Haberturk four neighborhoods had been evacuated but there were no reports of casualties yet.

Authorities could not immediately say what caused the fire.

Agriculture Minister Bekir Pakdemirli said authorities were battling the flames with a firefighting plane, 19 helicopters, 108 vehicles and some 400 personnel.

Turkey’s AFAD disaster agency said emergency teams from nearby provinces were also called into action, while authorities evacuated settlements near the forest.

Antalya, a popular destination for both foreign and local tourists, is known for its scorching summer heat. Bocek said the extreme heat and strong winds were fanning the fire as it swept through the pine forest.

The fire comes as Turkey battles with a series of disasters caused by extreme weather conditions in recent weeks.

Earlier this month, flash floods in the Black Sea provinces of Rize and Artvin damaged homes and property. The floods killed six people in Rize, according to AFAD.

(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Alex Richardson)

At least 25 dead in Chinese province’s heaviest rains in 1,000 years

By Ryan Woo and Stella Qiu

BEIJING (Reuters) – At least 25 people have died in China’s flood-stricken central province of Henan, a dozen of them in a subway line in its capital that was drenched by what weather officials called the heaviest rains for 1,000 years.

About 100,000 people have been evacuated in Zhengzhou, the capital, where rail and road transport have been disrupted, while dams and reservoirs have swelled to warning levels while thousands of troops launched a rescue effort in the province.

City authorities said more than 500 people were pulled to safety from the flooded subway, as social media images showed train commuters immersed in chest-deep waters in the dark and one station reduced to a large brown pool.

“The water reached my chest,” a survivor wrote on social media. “I was really scared, but the most terrifying thing was not the water, but the diminishing air supply in the carriage.”

The rain halted bus services in the city of 12 million people about 650 km (400 miles) southwest of Beijing, said a resident surnamed Guo, who had to spend the night at his office.

“That’s why many people took the subway, and the tragedy happened,” Guo told Reuters.

At least 25 people have died in the torrential rains that have lashed the province since last weekend, with seven missing, officials told a news conference on Wednesday.

Media said the dead included four residents of the city of Gongyi, located on the banks of the Yellow River like Zhengzhou, following the widespread collapse of homes and structures because of the rains.

More rain is forecast across Henan for the next three days, and the People’s Liberation Army has sent more than 5,700 soldiers and personnel to help with search and rescue.

From Saturday to Tuesday, 617.1 mm (24.3 inches) of rain fell in Zhengzhou, almost the equivalent of its annual average of 640.8 mm (25.2 inches).

The three days of rain matched a level seen only “once in a thousand years”, meteorologists said.

“Such extreme weather events will likely become more frequent in the future,” said Johnny Chan, a professor of atmospheric science at City University of Hong Kong.

“What is needed is for governments to develop strategies to adapt to such changes,” he added, referring to authorities at city, province and national levels.

‘FLOOD PREVENTION DIFFICULT’

Many train services have been suspended across Henan, a major logistics hub with a population of about 100 million. Highways have also been closed and flights delayed or cancelled.

By Wednesday, media said food and water supplies had run out for hundreds of passengers stranded on a train that had stopped just beyond the city limits of Zhengzhou two days earlier.

Roads were severely flooded in a dozen cities of the province.

“Flood prevention efforts have become very difficult,” President Xi Jinping said in a statement broadcast by state television.

Dozens of reservoirs and dams breached danger levels.

Local authorities said the rainfall had caused a 20-metre breach in the Yihetan dam in the city of Luoyang west of Zhengzhou, and that the dam “could collapse at any time”.

In Zhengzhou itself, where about 100,000 people have been evacuated, the Guojiazui reservoir had been breached but there was no dam failure yet.

A raft of Chinese companies, insurers and a state-backed bank said they had offered donations and emergency aid to local governments in Henan amounting to 1.935 billion yuan ($299 million).

SCHOOLS, HOSPITALS CUT OFF

Taiwan’s Foxconn, which operates a plant in Zhengzhou assembling iPhones for Apple, said there was no direct impact on the facility.

China’s largest automaker, SAIC Motor, warned of short-term impact on logistics at its plant in the city, while Japan’s Nissan said production at its factory had been suspended.

Schools and hospitals were marooned, and people caught in the floods flocked to shelter in libraries, cinemas and even museums.

“We’ve up to 200 people of all ages seeking temporary shelter,” said a staffer surnamed Wang at the Zhengzhou Science and Technology Museum.

“We’ve provided them with instant noodles and hot water. They spent the night in a huge meeting room.”

After the First Affiliated Hospital of Zhengzhou, the city’s largest with more than 7,000 beds, lost all power, officials raced to find transport for about 600 critically ill patients.

The neighboring province of Hebei issued a storm alert for some cities, including Shijiazhuang, its capital, warning of moderate to heavy rain from Wednesday.

(Reporting by Sameer Manekar in Bengaluru, Josh Horwitz and Jing Wang in Shanghai, and Stella Qiu, Roxanne Liu, Cheng Leng, Yilei Sun, Judy Hua and Ryan Woo in Beijing; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Taipei, Beijing Newsroom and Kanupriya Kapoor in Singapore; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell and Clarence Fernandez)

Rare tornado rips through southern Czech Republic, killing five

By Jason Hovet

HRUSKY, Czech Republic (Reuters) -Emergency workers and residents combed through wreckage in southern Czech Republic on Friday after a tornado ripped roofs off buildings and sent cars flying through the air, killing at least five people and injuring hundreds.

The tornado, which hit towns and villages around Hodonin along the Slovak and Austrian borders on Thursday evening, may have reached windspeeds above 332 kph (206 mph), a Czech Television meteorologist said.

“It was terrible what we went through,” said Lenka Petrasova in Hrusky who recounted taking shelter with her 11-year old-son after spotting the tornado minutes before it hit. “It was unbelievable. I saw a car fly, and dogs flying.”

Firefighters searched the rubble on Friday while the army sent in a team with heavy engineering equipment to deal with the aftermath of the strongest storm in the central European nation’s modern history and its first tornado since 2018.

In the village of Hrusky with a population of 1,600, a deputy mayor estimated that a third of the houses were destroyed and many needed inspections before people could safely return.

“Part of the village is levelled, only the perimeter walls without roofs, without windows remain,” Marek Babisz told news site iDNES.

“The church has no roof, it has no tower, cars were hurled at family houses, people had nowhere to hide. The village from the church down practically ceased to exist,” he said.

South Moravia regional administration chief Jan Grolich said that five people had died in the storm, and regional hospitals treated some 150 injured while others were sent elsewhere.

Emergency crews from neighboring Poland, Austria and Slovakia fanned out across the region, 270 km (167 miles) southeast of Prague, to assist.

Officials said thousands of homes had been destroyed and appealed to people not to drive to the affected areas so rescue services could work, urging them to send donations instead.

More than 100 residents of a home for the elderly in Hodonin had to be evacuated.

Prime Minister Andrej Babis cut short his attendance at the European Council summit in Brussels to visit the area where electricity and water remained shut off in a number of villages.

Speaking on his return, Babis said the government’s priority was to tap the European Union’s solidarity fund in which around 1.3 billion euros are put aside for such situations in member countries.

“The footage I saw is absolutely catastrophic,” said Babis, who also toured damaged homes in Hrusky. “We have offers of help from across Europe and many prime ministers have approached me to offer assistance.”

Czech TV reported as many as seven small towns were “massively” damaged, citing an emergency services spokesperson.

Residents on Friday surveyed the damage.

“There used to be two rooms above this,” Mikulcice resident Pavel Netopilik said pointing to the rubble surrounding his house where the upstairs floors collapsed. “Now they are not here. The ceiling collapsed.”

(Additional reporting by Robert Muller in Prague, Writing by Michael Kahn; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Philippa Fletcher)