Venezuela floods kill at least 21 after heavy rains

Days of torrential rain have brought widespread flooding to Venezuela. Pictures courtesy VTV

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Days of torrential rain have brought widespread flooding to Venezuela, destroying thousands of homes and killing at least 21 people.

A state of emergency has been declared in four states, including the capital, Caracas.

Many of the deaths occurred in poor areas of the capital, where landslides have swept away houses built on steep hillsides.

The government says at least 5,600 people have been left homeless.

Flights have been disrupted at the main international airport and the road linking it to Caracas has been cut by landslides.

A boy carries a girl on his back through the flooded streets of Higuerote, Venezuela Thousands have had to flee their homes

Worst hit have been the coastal states of Falcon, Miranda and Vargas, as well as the capital district of Caracas.

Thousands of people are living in temporary shelters, including schools, universities and army barracks.

President Hugo Chavez said he had opened the presidential palace to give shelter to 26 families made homeless by the disaster.

'Screaming'

Schools have been closed to protect children and reduce the amount of traffic on the roads. Heavy rain is expected to continue for several days.

Sixty-year-old Ena Romero said part of a hillside had collapsed in her neighbourhood in Caracas and had taken other homes with it.

"The only thing I remember was a loud clamour and the people screaming," she told Associated Press.

Map

Those killed in Vargas state included the head of the Vargas municipal council, Miguel Zavala, and a police inspector, who were swept away by a swollen river during the night.

Crews are working to reopen the highway in Vargas after flooding rivers and mudslides blocked access, the state governor said.

The May-November rainy season in Mexico, Central America and the northern part of South America has been extremely severe this year as a result of climatic phenomenon known as La Nina, which is caused by colder than usual water currents along the Pacific coast.

In Colombia, much of the country has seen widespread flooding that has affected more than a million people and caused more than 136 deaths over recent weeks.

On Tuesday, the country's coffee growers voiced concern that the heavier than usual rainfall may affect next year's crop.

In December 1999 floods in Venezuela killed up to 30,000 people in the country's worst natural disaster in modern times.

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