BELGRADE (Reuters) - The Serbian government declared a state of emergency on Thursday amid fears of widespread flooding that could force thousands to leave their homes following days of heavy rain that is expected to continue overnight.
Authorities evacuated some 120 people in southwestern Serbia earlier this week after rivers overflowed their banks, flooding hundreds of homes and large tracts of farmland.
In a statement, the government said it had declared the state of emergency "as a preemptive measure to ease and speed up actions of all state bodies" with the aim of protecting human lives and property and reducing the effects of flooding.
In 2014 the heaviest rainfall in more than a century caused rivers in Serbia to burst their banks, sweeping away roads, bridges and homes. More than 50 people died while total damage was estimated at 1.5 billion euros ($1.67 billion).
But critics said the damage then would not have been so great if the government of Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic and state-owned utilities had reacted in a timely manner to meteorologists' warnings of heavy rain.
"This time we are declaring a state of emergency preventatively," Serbia's interior minister, Nebojsa Stefanovic, told B92 TV broadcaster. "If the rainfall continues there is a danger that certain rivers will flood and we need to be prepared for that."
He said the army and the police would be deployed to help strengthen dams with sandbags and evacuate people if needed.
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(Reporting by Ivana Sekularac and Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Gareth Jones)