Serbia readies flood defences as Danube nears record high

Thu Jun 13, 2013 5:46pm IST

* Army on standby, weekend settlements evacuated

* Flooding caused havoc in Central Europe

* Severe flooding could hurt agricultural heartland

By Valerie Hopkins

BEZDAN, Serbia, June 13 (Reuters) - Water levels in the Serbian stretch of the Danube river neared a 50-year high on Thursday as the Balkan country braced for a wave of floods that have already ravaged parts of central Europe.

Authorities stressed they did not expect the kind of damage seen in Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, where at least a dozen people died and tens of thousands fled their homes.

The army was placed on standby and dozens of people were evacuated from mainly weekend settlements on the banks of the Danube in Serbia's northern Vojvodina province, bordering Hungary and Croatia.

Croatia, too, said it was taking "preventive measures" to cope with the impact of the swell.

"Dikes have been checked, all teams are at potential hotspots, movable barriers and pumps are in place," Predrag Maric, the head of the Serbian Interior Ministry's emergencies department, told Reuters.

"It will be tense until Saturday," he said.

In the northern region of Bezdan, the Danube reached 752 centimetres (25 feet), just below its 1965 high of 776 centimetres.

Bane Bozanic, an engineer with the state hydro-meteorological institute at the scene, said Yugoslav-era dikes had been doubled in height and reinforced in the 1950s.

"They built them five decades ago and they're still holding all this water," he said. "It (the river) peaked this morning and this is the highest it will go."

Severe flooding would hit the fragile Serbian economy, which is heavily dependent on agriculture mainly in the northern plains of Vojvodina.

But with the swell losing steam, Serbia on Wednesday turned down an offer of 1,000 troops from northern neighbour Hungary to help in the flood effort.

Maric said the Serbian military was ready to act.

"It's our assessment that we don't need them right now, but they have machinery and teams at the ready," he said. (Additional reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade and Zoran Radosavljevic in Zagreb; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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