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At least 19 die as flash floods hit France

At least 19 people were killed in flash floods that hit the backhills of the French Riviera yesterday and turned streets into rivers of surging muddy water.

There was confusion about how many people were missing in the floods that had washed over the idyllic towns, leaving metres of brown water in their wake. But it looked likely that at least 12 people remained unaccounted for last night, emergency services said.

French interior minister Brice Hortefeux, visiting the region, said the death toll “unfortunately may climb”.

The floods swept away cars, trees and parts of houses in a downpour that devastated the picturesque region in the hills behind a portion of the Riviera.

Eleven of the deaths were in the city of Draguignan in the Riviera backhills, halfway between Marseille and Monaco.

Nearly 3,000 rescue workers poured into the region, joining 650 police, the prefecture said. Nearly a dozen helicopters worked overnight to evacuate people trapped by floodwaters, which reached about two metres high in some areas.

It was the second time in less than four months that France has coped with major weather-related disasters. On February 28, at least 52 people were killed when a storm named Xynthia swept through French coastal communities on the Atlantic with waves smashing dikes.

This afternoon, about 1,200 people were in shelters, and tens of thousands were without electricity or a phone service, the Var government said. More than 89,000 people remained without electricity this evening.

The Toulon-Hyeres Airport, closed for several hours, was reopened but the train line between Toulon and Nice was shut down, the prefecture said.

The flash flooding started yesterday evening. Meteo France meteorological service forecast more but lighter rain tonight in the popular tourist region.

"We've never seen so much rain in the month of June," said Patrick Galois, of the national weather service.

He said some 40 centimetres (16 inches) of rain had fallen in the hardest-hit area of Arcs, near Draguignan. "That corresponds with average rainfall in six months," he said.

French television broadcast images of walls of muddy brown water slamming over stone walls and coursing through city streets. The flood left cars stacked on one another and ripped the siding off houses.

Residents worked today to clear mud and water from homes and businesses.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said his "first thoughts go out to the victims", and underscored his "solidarity with the inhabitants of the Var region who have had to go through this very difficult natural disaster", according to a statement.

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