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Floods close Lourdes pilgrims' site

Floods in south-west France have forced the closure of the Catholic pilgrimage site in Lourdes and the evacuation of visitors from nearby hotels.

Water swirled up to 5 feet deep in the grotto where nearly six million believers from around the world, many gravely ill, come every year seeking miracles and healing. It has been a major pilgrimage site since a French girl's vision of the Virgin Mary there in 1858.

Mayor Jean-Pierre Artiganave that the pilgrimage complex in the foothills of the Pyrenees will not reopen until safety can be assured. Diocese spokesman Mathias Terrier said that was not likely before the end of the week.

Rescue services evacuated hundreds of people from nearby hotels. They were particularly concerned with bringing weak and sick pilgrims to safety. A group of 3,000 children due for a day visit had their trip cancelled.

Heavy rains around the region inundated town centres and swelled the Gave de Pau river, forcing road closures.

"We need more reinforcements in the area to face these floods, which are really exceptional," interior minister Manuel Valls said while visiting Lourdes. He said days of sustained rains and sudden snowmelt made the flooding worse, and left some villages isolated.

The website for the pilgrimage complex, which includes several buildings and a sanctuary nestled beneath a rocky hillside, carried a dramatic rundown of the rising waters.

As the waters began to rise, masses were gradually cancelled. One by one, entrances to the sanctuary were cordoned off. The live video feed of the grotto went down. Then the electricity was cut off, and then phones.

"A vision of the apocalypse in the Sainte Bernadette Church, where the big movable partition is threatening to fall. The water has risen above the stairs of the choir," read one announcement.

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