The authorities in southern Italy declared a state of emergency yesterday as landslides forced the evacuation of 2,000 people from the town of San Fratello, Sicily, reports said.

"The catastrophe is of unimaginable proportions" Raffaele Lombardo, president of the Sicilian region, was cited as saying by the Ansa news agency.

Some 2,000 out of San Fratello's 4,500 inhabitants have fled their homes after recent heavy rain in the area.

The landslide damaged houses as well as schools and the local church, and mayor Salvatore Sidoti Pinto said he was worried San Fratello will soon become a "ghost town".

"We are seeing the town disappear," Mr Pinto told Ansa, adding: "We are looking at what's happening without being able to intervene."

Small towns around San Fratello such as Tusa and Sant'Angelo di Brolo have also been evacuated.

In October 2009, dozens died after torrential rain caused massive landslides in an area near Messina in eastern Sicily.

Experts and the press blamed the tragedy on unregulated building in the area without regard to the terrain. San Fratello lies nearly two-thirds of the way up a mountain some 800 metres high.

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