Chile desert floods death toll hits 23, 57 missing

Chile desert floods death toll hits 23, 57 missing

SANTIAGO - The death toll from devastating flash floods in Chile's normally arid north rose to 23 Tuesday after five bodies were found, and the number of missing surged to 57, authorities said.

Torrential rains have soaked the Atacama region, home to the world's driest desert, triggering flash floods that swept away entire villages in the Atacama and Antofagasta areas.

There are "23 people who have been killed and 57 missing, as well as 22,381 people who have been displaced, including 4,095 in temporary shelters," said Ricardo Toro, director of the National Emergency Office (Onemi).

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet had warned at the weekend that the situation in the area was "bleak" and that the death toll was likely to rise. Her government so far has pledged about $9.5 million (S$12.9 million) in aid.

Progress so far has seen power restored to 95 per cent of customers and the water service resumed for 80 per cent of the affected area.

Meanwhile, Bolivia's defence minister Jorge Ledezma made the mistake of handing out bottled water for Chileans hit by the floods while wearing a jacket reading: "The sea belongs to Bolivia." Bolivian President Evo Morales sacked him Tuesday after the Chilean government complained about the words, a reference to Bolivia's still-standing claim to the coast it lost to Chile in the War of the Pacific, which ended in 1883.

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