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Madeira in mourning as flood toll expected to rise

22 lutego, 2010

Portugal was set to announce Monday three days of mourning after flash flooding on the island of Madeira killed at least 42 people, with the toll expected to rise as rescue work continued.

Britain announced overnight that a British national was among those who died on Saturday when torrents of muddy water swamped buildings and streets on the island, demolishing houses and overturning cars.

It was first confirmed death of a foreign national in the disaster.

Troops and other rescue workers spent Sunday digging through mud-filled houses, with the work due to continue Monday.

"It is very probable that we will find more bodies," mayor Miguel Albuquerque told reporters in Madeira\'s main city, Funchal.

The government rushed medical and rescue teams including divers and sniffer dogs and relief supplies to the Atlantic island.

The cabinet was meanwhile expected to announce three days of national mourning at a special meeting Monday in Lisbon, government sources said.

The heavy rains ended Sunday, revealing scenes of devastation in the capital, Funchal, with cars overturned and roofs ripped off buildings.

Power and telephone lines were torn down but flights to the international airport restarted from the Portuguese mainland, 900 kilometres (560 miles) to the northeast.

The regional government gave a toll on Sunday of at least 42 dead and more than 120 people injured, including a few British nationals.

The British Foreign Office did not immediately release details of the British national who died in the disaster.

"We can confirm that one British national has died in Madeira," it said in a statement Sunday.

British newspapers reported Monday the victim was a female tourist, 50-year-old Pamela Gaines.

She had been travelling between hotels with her husband and another British couple when their taxi was swept away by water from a swollen river, said the Daily Telegraph and The Times.

Madeira\'s social issues affairs secretary Francisco Ramos told reporters the disruption to phone lines had made it difficult to establish how many people needed to be rescued because many of them just could not be contacted.

A shopping centre in Funchal was completely destroyed and firefighters feared there were likely people trapped in an underground parking lot which was still under water.

A morgue has been set up at the airport, where local official said they had not yet been able to identify all the bodies.

Winds exceeding 100 kilometres (60 miles) an hour, high seas and blocked roads made rescue attempts even more dangerous for emergency services.

The mud filled some homes up to the second floor and the rescue teams from mainland Portugal were put to work clearing out the stricken buildings.

Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates visited Funchal on Saturday and promised "all necessary aid" to help Madeira recover from the disaster.

Football star Cristiano Ronaldo, Madeira\'s most famous native, expressed shock and promised help for relief efforts.

"It is a huge catastrophe, a tragedy without precedent," said the world\'s most expensive footballer, who was born in a poor district of Funchal.

The head of the regional government held talks late Saturday with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso in a bid to get EU aid.

Neighbouring Spain and its Canary Islands have also offered to send aid.

Officials on the island have opened a military garrison to house about 100 of the 250 people left homeless.

Portuguese media said the storms were the deadliest in Madeira since October 1993, when eight people died.