Thousands flee as Somali river bursts banks

 
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JOWHAR, Somalia, Nov 11 (Reuters) Thousands fled a Somali town near the border with Ethiopia today as floodwaters submerged buildings, witnesses said.

No casualties were immediately reported in the town of about 40,000 people, 170 km (105 miles) northwest of the capital Mogadishu after the Shabelle river burst its banks late yesterday.

Shopkeepers were rescuing their wares as hundreds of residents were seen walking in the muddy waters clutching children and a few possessions.

''We have asked residents to flee since the situation is worsening,'' Sheik Farah Maalim, a senior official with the Islamist group that controls the town and much of southern Somalia, said.

Water levels rose as high as 1.7 metres (5 ft 7 in).

''We have no capacity to help the people and aid agencies are yet to come in. We have only beefed up security to prevent people from looting the abandoned shops.'' At least 47 people drowned and thousands were left homeless on Wednesday when the same river and the Juba, which both snake through Somalia, burst their banks after heavy rains, residents and aid workers said.

''I have never witnessed such a catastrophe,'' resident Mahamud Hassan told Reuters as he walked on a flooded street. ''The whole town is moving out. I am not sure how many have died so far.'' Large swathes of farmland were submerged and food stocks washed away after torrential rain pounded the Horn of Africa country for several days, swelling the Shabelle and the Juba river further south.

The rivers snake through the most agriculturally productive regions in Somalia.

In Jilib, 365 km (227 miles) south of Mogadishu, aid workers said the Juba had flooded and submerged several villages. Crocodiles were feasting on the bodies of people and animals.

''We had to hire boats to transport food aid to hundreds of victims,'' aid worker Osman Mohamed told Reuters by telephone.

''Seven people have already died within this month. I saw people rescuing a woman from a crocodile. Her hands were bruised.'' Aid workers expect the death toll to rise as thousands of poor farming families sleep out in the cold and get exposed to malaria and water-borne diseases.

Somalia, one of the world's poorest countries, plunged into anarchy in 1991 after a dictator was overthrown by clan warlords.

Since then tens of thousands have died from violence and hunger.

REUTERS MQA PM1923

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