Hundreds evacuated in Georgia floods

Flooding and mudslides in western Georgia have destroyed hundreds of homes, cut off access to dozens of villages and forced the evacuation of more than 800 people.

    At least three major rivers have broken their banks

    Days of heavy rain, combined with melting snow, triggered one of the worst natural disasters for the region in years, flooding the country's second-largest city, Kutaisi, and one of Europe's most mountainous regions.

    "The most important thing is that there were no deaths," Otar Siradze, a presidential representative assigned to some of the affected regions, told Georgia's Rustavi-2 television. He said it was too early to calculate the cost of damage.

    Emergency officials estimated that more than 70 villages were cut off after three rivers, the Tskhenistskali, the Ladzhanuri and the Rioni, flooded their banks.

    Mudslides damaged hundreds of homes, more than 30 bridges, hundreds of kilometres of roadways and thousands of hectares of farmland. Energy and water supplies were also damaged and 800 people were evacuated.

    A passenger bus and two other vehicles were trapped on the Trans-Caucasus highway - the major thoroughfare in the region - after a mud flow blocked the road, Russia's ITAR-Tass news agency reported.

    The vehicles had been heading from Georgia into Russia when the mudslide damaged the road near the village of Buron.

    Conditions improved on Tuesday with the rain largely stopping. Emergency crews, assisted by Georgian soldiers, pushed to reach the villages still cut off from outside contact, and to begin repairs.

    Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli also headed to the region on Tuesday, and President Mikhail Saakashvili signed an order promising help to the victims. 

    Russian withdrawal

    In an unrelated development, Russia said it would complete the withdrawal of its military bases from Georgia by
    January 2008, Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili said late on Monday.

    Zurabishvili was in Moscow for talks with her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, who said earlier that the two sides had reached a preliminary accord on a timetable for a phased withdrawal that could begin this year.

    At an Organisation for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) summit in 1999, Russia signed a pledge to leave two of the bases immediately and to negotiate the terms for its departure from the remaining two, located near the southwest Georgian port of Batumi and the southern city of Akhalkalaki.

    Russia kept the first part of that promise but has shown little inclination in recent years to follow through on the second part, triggering anger in Georgia and increasing international criticism.

    Georgian officials said he would decide whether or not to accept an invitation to attend ceremonial events in Moscow on 9 May, marking the 60th anniversary of the end of the second world war, based on his assessment of the apparent agreement on the bases.

    About 3000 Russian soldiers are deployed at the two bases.



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