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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Floodwaters Close In on Yakutsk in East Siberia

YAKUTSK, Eastern Siberia — Floodwaters were rising in the eastern Siberian city of Yakutsk on Monday, engulfing homes in outlying districts, while warplanes bombed massive ice floes blocking the river.

And a wave of meltwater that has already destroyed a smaller town upstream on the Lena River was still bearing down on the city of about 200,000 residents, local Emergency Situations Ministry officials said.

"If the wave reaches us, the water level here could increase by 1 1/2 to 2 meters," said Pyotr Voitovich, head of the rescue information unit, adding that it could reach Yakutsk on Monday night.

In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin began a Cabinet meeting by discussing the floods, and acknowledged that the effects of the disaster were "grave."

Lensk, which lies upstream and southeast of Yakutsk, was wiped out by meltwater last week and many of its 30,000 residents were rescued from their rooftops by helicopter.

The meltwater was released when Sukhoi Su-24 bombers blasted apart a huge ice floe Friday near Lensk.

The floods, the worst eastern Siberia has seen in a century, were triggered by a spring thaw after a particularly harsh winter.

The Emergency Situations Ministry in Moscow said the water level around Yakutsk, capital of the diamond mining republic Sakha, had risen to 8.5 meters.

Overnight it breached the critical level of 7.8 meters — the point at which water starts to flow onto the flood plain.

In districts bordering the city, water was already lapping at the roofs of small wooden houses.

Some people have been evacuated, but others were perched on their roofs, refusing to leave for fear of abandoning their property to looters.

An Emergency Situations Ministry spokesman said bomber jets and helicopters had dropped 24 bombs, weighing around 8.5 tons, on ice blockages Monday. This had created holes through which the water could flow, but only temporarily.

Interfax said some 4,000 people had already been evacuated from areas in and around the city, adding that emergency services were prepared for more evacuations.

In all, 45,700 people have been evacuated in the republic.

"For at least 24 hours the situation is going to be tense," Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, who recently returned from a visit to the region, said on NTV television.

There were no deaths reported in Yakutsk due to flooding, but one woman drowned in Lensk a few days ago as she and her husband tried to escape the inundation by boat.

Prime-Tass quoted the head of the regional Emergency Situations Ministry department, General Lieutenant Gennady Korotkin, as saying that a dam created in the last few days was holding the floodwater back from Yakutsk.

It has been calculated that the dam can hold water levels up to 9.5 meters. But a spokesman for the ministry said they could not be certain that the dam would prevent the city from flooding.

The administration in the Yakutsk region has banned the sale of strong alcohol during the floods as a safety measure to ensure people remain sober in what remains a potentially life-threatening situation.