ITALY

Berlusconi visits Sicily’s mudslide victims as death toll rises

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has visited landslide survivors in Sicily, where the death toll from flooding and massive mudslides rose to 23, with at least 35 others still missing and more than 500 people homeless.

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AFP - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi visited landslide survivors in Sicily on Sunday as bulldozers found another body in the devastated area where at least 23 people were killed last week.

Rescuers near Messina on the east of the island found the body of a Polish woman, whose four-year-old daughter is among 35 still missing, as Berlusconi said that those affected would be exempt from taxes.

"We will block taxes and credit repayments for residents of the area affected by the landslide," he told survivors at a hotel in Messina where 190 people have taken shelter.

"Reconstruction is too expensive and cannot be assured, so we will do like in L'Aquila: new homes in other areas, but still within the urban fabric," he added, drawing applause from residents.

An April 6 earthquake killed nearly 300 people in the central Italian city and the surrounding area on the mainland and left 70,000 homeless.

In Sicily, several villages in the region hit by torrential rain that sparked the mudslide on Thursday remained cut off. Berlusconi toured hard-hit areas by helicopter.

"What I saw from the helicopter is really disturbing. Thankfully you managed to escape. I'm happy to see you here," he said.

The Civil Protection service in Sicily said that at least 23 people had died, 35 were missing, 29 were recovering in hospital and 564 people whose homes were engulfed by the mud were sleeping in schools, hotels and other temporary accommodation.

Survivors asked Berlusconi not to abandon them, adding that they wanted to "go home" quickly, the ANSA news agency said.

Responding to a resident who was pointing out poorly constructed buildings among the mud-covered hills, Berlusconi said "I've seen abuses in all of Italy, but I won't leave you and I will return."

Italian commentators have blamed poorly built and anarchic building projects for the scale of the damage. Berlusconi told journalists in Messina that "absolutely exceptional rainfall" was to blame.

In places the mud was seven metres (25 feet) deep and civil protection teams and firefighters, four sniffer dog units and more than 200 volunteers were searching through the devastated area.

Roads are cut and the only way for rescuers to reach the area is to walk along rail tracks.

Arriving in Messina, Berlusconi avoided protestors against a 6.1 billion euro (8.5 billion dollar) bridge project across the Straits of Messina due to start building next year.

President Giorgio Napolitano called last week for investment in "a serious security plan, instead of monumental works," in reference to the bridge for which Berlusconi has been pushing for years.

The opposition Democratic Party said that on Sunday Berlusconi behaved "like the head of civil protection (instead of) rethinking his political choices in terms of the environment and land."

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