Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi said he fears that the death toll from the mudslides that have hit Sicily could rise to 50, as rescue teams continued digging Saturday through piles of mud.
So far 20 people are known to have died from Italy's worst mudslides in a decade, while 80 were injured, and 40 remained missing, officials said.
Rivers of mud unleashed by heavy rains flooded parts of Messina, a city in eastern Sicily, on Friday, sweeping away cars and collapsing buildings. Hundreds were left homeless.
"At the end there will be at least 50 deaths," Berlusconi said, according to the ANSA and Apcom news agency. He said the situation was "very grave."
The premier could visit as soon as Saturday.
Rescue teams were digging with bulldozers, shovels and bare hands through the mud. Some rescuers were aided by sniffer dogs as they were looking for survivors, and firefighters were clearing away the mud from major roads, said Luca Spoletini of the Civil Protection Department.
But the rescue efforts were hampered by continuing rain, making many roads impassable and the terrain still unstable.
Stranded in villages
Two villages were isolated and only reachable by air, Spoletini said. He said that while the lives of people in the villages were not believed to be in danger, there were concerns for their health and hygiene.
Spoletini said that rescue officials saved about 400 people on Friday evening, and that some were moved to hotels in Messina that were being used as rescued centers.
The mudslides left entire blocks covered by piles of rubbles and mud, cars were swallowed up by the mud.
Residents in one of the hardest hit villages, Giampilieri, had no water or electricity. Some of the injured ones suffered severe burns from the explosion of gas pipes and cylinders, officials said.
The storm in the night between Thursday and Friday unleashed some 9 inches of rain in just three hours.
Officials acknowledged that deforestation and unregulated development — a widespread practice here, especially in Sicily and the south of Italy — had weakened the soil and contributed to the mudslides from Messina's surrounding hills and cliffs.
Italian President Giorgio Napolitano denounced the illegal construction, which he said had caused "widespread" disruption in Messina's topography.
Italy’s leading environmental group Legambiente demanded more investment in construction oversight.
“Our country is paying a high price for having devastated the land with enormous and uncontrolled” construction, Legambiente President Vittorio Cogliati Dezza said in a statement.
Messina was wiped out once before by a 1908 earthquake and tsunami that killed some 84,000 people.
The mudslide was Italy's deadliest since 1998, when a rain-drenched mountain near Naples unleashed a torrent of mud that submerged villages and killed 150.
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