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Dozens killed in Brazil dam disaster

Washington Alves, Reuters | Rescue workers search for survivors near the dam that burst in Brumadinho, southeast Brazil, on January 25, 2019.

Brazilian firefighters said on Saturday that at least 34 people were killed when a dam burst at an iron ore mine owned by Vale SA, as rescuers continued to search for hundreds still missing.

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The Minas Gerais state fire department also said 23 people have been hospitalised after the dam released a torrent of mud on Friday, leaving a roughly 150-meter-wide (500-foot-wide) wake of destruction.

In an earlier statement, the department had said 300 people were still missing and 46 had been found alive, a figure that it did not update in its latest disclosure.

The mine is owned by Vale, a Brazilian mining giant that was involved in a previous 2015 mine collapse in the same state that claimed 19 lives and is regarded as the country's worst-ever environmental disaster.

Vale shares plummeted on the new accident, losing eight percent in New York trading.

Romeu Zema, the governor of Minas Gerais, told reporters that, while all was being done to find survivors, "from now, the odds are minimal and it is most likely we will recover only bodies".

His regional administration said 427 people had been working at the Vale mine at the time of the dam collapse, and 279 were recovered alive. The others were listed as missing.

Bolsonaro to visit

The massive, muddy flow from the collapse barrelled towards the nearby town of Brumadinho, population 39,000, but did not hit it directly.

Instead, it carved its way across roads, vegetation and farmland, taking down a bridge and damaging or destroying homes.

Television images showed people being pulled out of waist-high mud into rescue helicopters, dozens of which were in use by late Friday because of the cut-off land access.

Brazil's new government, led by President Jair Bolsonaro, reacted to its first big emergency since taking office early this month by launching disaster coordination between the defence, mining and environment ministries and authorities in the affected state of Minas Gerais.

Bolsonaro and his defence minister were scheduled to fly over the zone on Saturday. His environment minister raced to the area late Friday.

"Where are our relatives?" wailed Raquel Cristina, one of several people demanding information about their missing kin in the mud-hit area.

"My five-year-old nephew is asking me if his dad died. What do I tell him?" asked another, Olivia Rios.

Officials said they were working through the night, conscious of the precious hours ticking away.

Around 100 firefighters were deployed, some using earth-moving machinery to dig down to engulfed dwellings.

Would-be rescue volunteers were warned away because of the slippery, perilous piles of mud. The media were urged not to use drones to avoid collisions with the helicopters.

German inspectors found ‘no defect’

A German company that only months ago inspected the dam that collapsed in Brazil said on Saturday that it found nothing wrong with the structure during the checks. The statement came as hopes were fading that rescuers would find more survivors.

Tuev Sued, a Munich-based company specialising in certifications across the world, said it ran the inspection at the dam at the request of Vale. "In September 2018 Tuev Sued, commissioned by Vale, carried out an inspection of the dam which, as far as we know at the moment, found no defects," a spokesman told AFP.

Tuev Sued was not in a position to give more information while the investigation into the disaster was ongoing, he said, adding however that the company was fully cooperating with the investigation, including by providing "all documentation needed".

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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