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Five killed as sewage reservoir collapses in Gaza

UMM NASER, Gaza Strip -- A huge sewage reservoir in the northern Gaza Strip collapsed yesterday, killing five people in a frothing cascade of waste and mud that swamped a village and highlighted the desperate need to upgrade Gaza's overburdened infrastructure.

Rescue crews and Hamas gunmen rushed to the area to search for people feared buried under the sewage and mud. Dressed in wetsuits, they paddled boats through the layer of foam floating on the green and brown rivers of waste. Others waded up to their hips.

The noxious smell of waste and dead animals hung in the air.

Angry residents drove reporters away and mobbed government officials. When Interior Minister Hani Kawasmeh arrived to survey the damage, his bodyguards fired in the air to disperse the crowd.

In one house, everything from the television to the sink was covered in muck.

"We lost everything. Everything was covered by the flood. It's a disaster," said Amina Afif, 65, whose shack was destroyed.

Aid officials said plans to build a larger waste-treatment facility had been held up for years by perpetual fighting in the area between Israel and Palestinians and donor concerns about political instability. However, construction did not appear to have been affected by international sanctions imposed on the Palestinians.

The existing treatment plant in northern Gaza -- located just a few hundred yards from the border with Israel -- stores waste in seven holding basins. With the burgeoning population producing nearly four times as much waste as the plant could treat, officials have put overflow sewage in the nearby dunes, creating a lake covering nearly 110 acres, the United Nations said.

Yesterday morning, an earth embankment around one of the seven basins collapsed, sending a wall of sewage crashing into the village of Umm Naser.

The wave killed two women in their 70s, two toddlers, and a teenage girl and injured 35 other people, hospital officials said. More than 200 homes were destroyed, health officials said.

The Gaza City mayor blamed the collapse on local people digging dirt from the structure and selling it to building contractors.

Aid officials and the Palestinian government sent bulldozers to build makeshift walls to push back the sewage.

Many of the evacuated residents were staying in tents and other shelters nearby, rescue officials said. But officials feared a public health disaster.

Fadel Kawash, head of the Palestinian Water Authority, said the sewage level had risen in the reservoir in recent days.

But Gaza City Mayor Majid Abu Ramadan, who leads a council of Gaza municipalities, blamed the collapse on lawlessness in the Gaza Strip, accusing residents of stealing the dirt and selling it to building companies for $70 a truckload.