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Berlusconi pledges 1 bln euros to fight mudslides

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ROME, Oct 4 (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi pledged on Sunday 1 billion euros ($1.45 billion) for areas threatened by landslides, after heavy rains and mud killed at least 22 people in Sicily.

Berlusconi flew over the region around Messina where houses were flattened and roads washed away by a torrent of rain and mud last week.

The death toll is likely to rise as 40 people are missing, while more than 500 people have been left homeless.

"We had foreseen this disaster and given the alert," Berlusconi told reporters in Messina. "But the rains were even more intense than we expected. It was truly an exceptional situation," he said.

He said he hoped to set up a 1-billion-euro fund for areas threatened by inundation and landslides, starting with the Messina region, where he said 63 percent of the territory presented a "hydro-geological risk."

The funds would be used for protection measures such as building reinforcement and buffers against flooding.

Rescue services chief Guido Bertolaso and local officials have blamed shoddy building for the disaster, pointing to the fact that many houses had been built too close to rivers and the seafront in an area hit by landslides two years ago.

But the mayor of one of the villages stricken by the mudslides told La Stampa he had written twice to Berlusconi's government last year, urging funds for the region.

"Nothing happened: of the 20 million euros that we had requested after 2007, only 500,000 euros arrived. That was used to pay the companies that cleared the mud," said Mario Briguglio.

Unregulated building is common in Italy, particularly in the centre and south of the country. In April, an earthquake in the city of L'Aquila killed 300 people, and authorities said then poor building standards were to blame for the high death toll.

(Reporting by Antonella Cinelli; Writing by Silvia Aloisi)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation: For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit https://www.trust.org/alertnet