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Massive clean-up in Balkans after flood of the century

The task facing thousands of rescue workers, volunteers and soldiers was immense, with dozens of towns and villages devastated by the region's worst flood in living memory.

MALJUREVAC, Serbia: The death toll from cataclysmic floods in the Balkans rose by six to 57 on Friday as people returned home to salvage what belongings they could in a huge clean-up operation.

The task facing the thousands of rescue workers, volunteers and soldiers was immense, with dozens of towns and villages devastated by the region's worst natural disaster in living memory.

"This disaster has entered a new phase. At first it was about saving lives... now the water is receding, leaving devastation behind it," Bosnia's Defence Minister Zekerijah Osmic said.

Several thousand buildings were wrecked as the river Sava and its tributaries became a raging torrent and burst their banks last week, causing hundreds of millions of euros in damages.

"Houses built 20 to 30 years ago can be dried and renovated but for older ones it might be easier to tear them down and build new ones," Croatian Construction Minister Anka Mrak-Taritas said.

Vast areas still remain under water, and tens of thousands of the nearly 150,000 people evacuated in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia -- the biggest exodus since the wars of the 1990s -- were stuck in shelters.

Those that have come home, if their homes are still standing, were taking appliances and other belongings outside to dry, though many families have found everything ruined.

In the village of Maljurevac south-east of Belgrade, where the water level had risen two metres (six feet), roads were just about passable again as the fire brigade pumped brown water from gardens.

As in many areas, homes, schools, shops and roads were plastered with mud and littered with everything from bashed-up cars to bloated dead cows. Health officials were spraying disinfectant to prevent disease.

Villager Jasmina Pavlovic, 43, in wellies but with water up to her knees, told AFP that apart from their pig and goat, not much had survived, their seven sheep included.

"We've never seen floods this bad. We've lost everything," she said.

In the next-door garden, a tractor trailer was filled with a sodden mattress, a broken television and a vacuum cleaner, all destined for the dump. Mud-spattered clothing and bed linen were hanging in the sun to dry.

In the northern Bosnian town of Doboj, where nine people died, 80 lorries full of rubbish have already been collected, some of it then deposited at temporary sites because the municipal tip was full.

Complicating the clean-up operation in Bosnia was the possibility that some of the more than 120,000 landmines still littering the country 20 years after the war may have been dislodged. One such device exploded late Tuesday, although no injuries were caused.

"We still have to establish a scope area where floods and landslides have moved minefields, and there is a possibility that the rivers have brought mines into Croatia and Serbia," said Ahdin Orahovac of the Bosnian Mine Action Centre, which is working to replace warning signs that have also been washed away.

Authorities were also struggling to cope with the thousands of animal carcasses, too many for Bosnia's two incinerators, meaning some are being transported to Serbia.

"The animals have to be incinerated within 72 hours to prevent disease contagion," said veterinary expert Edin Satrovic. Burying large numbers runs the risk of contaminating the soil, he said.

Many animals were still alive but needed to be fed and in some cases rescued, presenting further problems.

"Yesterday, pigs and dogs bit four of our men," Vinko Prizmic, head of the Croatian Mountain Rescue Service, told state television.

One woman in Serbia, Vesna Prokopjevic, has taken in at least 70 dogs of all shapes and sizes.

"The dogs were traumatised, scared, wet and muddy. We gave them food, water -- and a hug," she told AFP.

Locals still found reasons to laugh, despite the devastation.

"Humour helped people during the war," said Colonel Mirsad Adzic, organising operations in the Bosnian town of Samac.

"That's the pool for the local water polo club," he told AFP, pointing to the submerged football pitch.

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