At least 72 people were killed early yesterday in flash floods after an intense, sudden downpour pounded eastern Ethiopia, sweeping away many of the victims while asleep, medical officials and rescue workers said.
Doctors said they had received bodies from villages which were inundated in the country's Dire Dawa region, about 500km east of the capital Addis Ababa.
"We have now received some 72 bodies and 50 other people injured, and we are expecting more," a doctor in the government-run Dilchora hospital, who asked not to be named, told reporters.
Red Cross officials said the final death toll could be much higher. They said police and rescue workers were scouring villages in search of survivors and bodies.
The floods cut off electricity to the township which lies in the Ethiopian lowlands.
"We have mobilized Red Cross volunteers to look for bodies and help survivors," said Kefelwe Alemu, an official from the Red Cross.
"The disaster is huge. It is quite difficult to give the exact number [of victims], it could be in the hundreds. We are now simply collecting the bodies and helping the injured. We may not be able to have an exact figure until we have searched every demolished house," he said.
The death toll is likely to rise as police said that more than 200 people had been reported missing.
"It may take time to establish casualties with any accuracy," a police officer said on conditions of anonymity.
"There are thousands of people displaced. We are working on two fronts: one recovering bodies and on the other trying to comfort the displaced and those who lost their love ones." Kefelwe said. Regional authorities appealed for help for those who have lost their homes.
Residents said the casualties of the floods, which are a result of the June-to-September wet season, were mainly women and children.
"Most of the people in the village known as the `Coca Cola' area were in bed when the flood hit the area. The search for more bodies is going on with the help of the army and local people," a witness told reporters.
The heavy downpour pummelled the area for more than an hour and a half, causing the River Dire Dawa that passes through the town to burst its banks and flood in the early hours, according to a witness, Belete Ayalew.
"My home is situated a bit far from the river, I was in bed when I heard people shouting. I opened the door, the water burst in, forcing me to escape to the rooftop from where police rescued me, but my house and property were destroyed," another 45-year-old witness, Abaye Baheru, said.
"While on the rooftop, I saw men, women and children being washed away, while crying for help," Abaye explained.
Witnesses said the floods destroyed more than 100 homes, markets and shops, and swept away livestock and vehicles. The full extent of the damage has yet to be assessed.
Last year, at least 200 people were killed and more than 260,000 displaced when heavy rains pounded the same region, which lies close to the Ethiopia's Somali state. Swarms of crocodiles devoured villagers, while others clung to trees to avoid being eaten.