TBILISI: Lions, tigers and even a hippopotamus escaped from a zoo in the Georgian capital Tbilisi Sunday, adding to chaos caused by flooding that killed at least 12 people, officials said.
Police and soldiers were hunting down the animals, recapturing some and shooting others dead, while rescuers airlifted scores of people trapped by the floods.
Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili called on Tbilisi residents to stay indoors while the animals were still at large, describing the damage to the city’s infrastructure as “substantial” after the River Vere burst its banks after hours of torrential rain.
“Our latest estimate is that the death toll is 12,” Tbilisi Mayor David Narmania told journalists.
The mayor’s office said dozens of families had been left without shelter and thousands without water and electricity in the city.
Several main roads were completely destroyed and small houses and cars were swept away by the torrents, while half a dozen coffins in a city cemetery were washed out of the ground and lay on the mud.
Tbilisi Zoo spokeswoman Mzia Sharashidze told the InterPressNews agency that three dead bodies had been found on the grounds of the zoo, including those of two employees.
“Search for animals continues, but a large part of the zoo is simply non-existent. It was turned into a hellish whirlpool,” Sharashidze said.
She said 20 wolves, eight lions and an unspecified number of tigers, jackals and jaguars had been shot dead by special forces or were missing.
“Only three out of our 17 penguins were saved,” she added.
– Hippo in the square –
Rustavi 2 television broadcast footage showing a hippo swimming in the flooded Heroes’ Square in downtown Tbilisi as rescuers struggled to capture the animal.
The corpses of a lion and a pony lay on the road close to the zoo on Sunday afternoon, an AFP journalist saw.
The government set up a hotline for residents to inform the emergency services if they spotted any of the predators.
President Giorgi Margvelashvili sent his condolences to the victims’ families as he visited the affected area to observe the clean-up operation.
“The human losses that we have suffered are very hard to tolerate. I express my condolences to all the people who lost their relatives,” Margvelashvili told local television.
Jacob Janjulia, a 21-year-old student who was among the residents volunteering to help rescuers, said parts of Tbilisi were “ravaged”.
“It’s the duty of all citizens to help rescuers, to help the affected people,” he told AFP.
Another Tbilisi resident, 46-year-old dentist Anna Korinteli, wept as she surveyed the scene.
“Such a terrible tragedy, people died, many lost their homes. I can’t stop crying,” she said. “My heart bleeds when I think of what happened to the animals in Tbilisi zoo.”
The head of the immensely influential Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, blamed the floods on the “sin” of Communists who he said built the zoo using money raised from destroying churches and melting down their bells.
“A terrible tragedy happened, people died in the flood. Tbilisi Zoo is ravaged. When the Communists occupied Georgia, and started repressions against Christians and the clergy and the destruction of churches and monasteries, they ordered church bells to be melted, the metal sold and a zoo to be built with that money,” he said in his Sunday morning sermon.
He said the zoo therefore “can’t flourish on that place. It must be relocated to a different place. A sin never remains without punishment,” he added.
Interior ministry spokeswoman Nino Giorgobiani said rescuers were airlifting scores from flood-affected areas after the heavy rainfall also caused a landslide on the Tskneti-Betania road outside the capital.
In May 2012, five people, including a mother and her two children, were killed in flooding that swept through Tbilisi’s ramshackle slums that are home to the city’s poorest.