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Iran president visits flood-hit zones as death toll hits 43

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Tehran (AFP)

President Hassan Rouhani travelled to flood-hit zones of Iran for the first time Wednesday after nine days of heavy rains that have inundated most of the country and killed 43 people.

The authorities have been struggling to cope with flooding since March 19 following extreme rainfall which at times was equivalent to half of the average annual levels within 24 hours.

The disaster, which one government minister blamed on climate change, struck in the middle of Iranian New Year break, with many relief workers away on leave and millions of holidaymakers the roads.

"When suddenly 25 out of 31, and on some days all provinces are struck (by flooding), this may be an unprecedented phenomenon," Rouhani said in Tehran, quoted by the government's website.

Rouhani then flew to the northeastern province of Golestan where the floods first struck on March 19 and have since killed at least 10 people, according to the latest official death tolls.

Speaking at a crisis management meeting in Golestan aired live on state television, Rouhani responded to criticsm that he was late to visit the disaster-hit zone.

"I had planned to come in the first days, but ultimately due to considerations it was decided the first vice-president would travel here," he said.

The deluge spread rapidly from the north to the west and south of the country on March 25 before hitting the centre of Iran as the weather front moved eastwards.

- Day of mourning -

A day of mourning has been declared for Thursday in the southern city of Shiraz, the worst-hit area where the flooding claimed the lives of 19 people and injured more than 100.

The latest toll included six people who drowned when a boat full of rescuers and victims overturned in the northeastern Gomishan region in Golestan province.

"Another body has been found but we have not yet recovered it," local emergency services head Alireza Kamalgharibi said, adding that search and rescue operations would continue as it was unclear how many people had been on board the boat.

Another four people were killed in the western provinces of Kogiluyeh-Va-Boyerahmad and Lorestan, said Morteza Salimi, head of the Iranian Red Crescent's search and rescue organisation.

One death was also reported in each of Khuzestan, Kermanshah and Semnan provinces.

"More than 43,000 people were rescued and nearly 27,000 were provided with emergency accommodation," Salimi said, quoted by Tasnim news agency, adding rescue operations had been carried out in 30 provinces.

Officials estimate the flooding caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to homes, farms and infrastructure.

The authorities have sent out emergency warnings to the public on mobile phones while state television has aired safety tips, including on how to leave cars stuck in floods.

In Tehran, sandbags have been placed at the entrances to underground stations while in Isfahan people were evacuated over fears the banks of the Zayandeh Rood river would burst.

The skies have mostly cleared up for now but Iran's meteorological service has warned of more heavy showers from Saturday.

Such a widespread flood threat is unprecedented in arid Iran, which until 2018 was dealing with decades of drought.

"Climate change is forcing itself on our country," Energy Minister Reza Ardekanian, who is in charge of dams and water supply, said on Monday.

"These unprecedented floods in our country are because of climate change worldwide," he added.

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