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Death Tolls Rise in Tunisian Clashes, Brazil’s Floods

January 13, 2011 at 4:51 PM EST
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KWAME HOLMAN: The toll from floods and mudslides in Brazil grew drastically overnight to at least 400 people killed. More than 50 others were missing.

Heavy rain sent tons of earth plunging down mountainsides north of Rio de Janeiro before dawn on Wednesday. The mud and water swept away everything, including entire homes. In one rescue, a woman leaped into the torrent, but had to let go of her dog to cling to a lifeline. She was pulled to safety.

Floodwaters in Australia’s third-largest city began to recede today, leaving behind extensive damage. More than 30,000 homes in Brisbane, the capital of Queensland, were swamped by a surging river overnight. Helicopter rescue teams like this one fanned out today across stricken areas upstream. The death toll stood at 25, but officials said it’s expected to grow.

And, in Sri Lanka, monsoon rains kept coming, adding to the flooding disaster there. More than a million people have been affected, with — with 23 dead and at least 325,000 forced from their homes.

The long-ruling president of Tunisia appealed for a cease-fire today and he offered concessions to quell growing riots. At least 23 people in the north African country have been killed in clashes with police over the last few weeks.

We have a report narrated by Jonathan Rugman of Independent Television News.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: This was Tunis today, a capital city in chaos, where a protester falls to the ground after being shot and injured by police.

Tunisia is a normally peaceful tourist destination, but it’s facing its biggest political crisis in decades. This was the central city of Douz, where demonstrators say police shot dead two people, among them, a university professor lying face down in his own blood.

And what began as a protest by the poor has turned into an uprising spearheaded by the educated middle class against life in a police state. In the capital, today’s standoff with the army would have been almost unthinkable a few weeks ago. These pictures were filmed on a mobile phone but not broadcast in Tunisia itself, where the Internet is censored.

MAN (through translator): We are young, cultivated people. We are artists, and we were beaten in front of the national theater.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: At night, the violence has continued, despite an official curfew. Around 40 people are thought to have died, with the U.N. talking of the indiscriminate killing of peaceful protesters.

But the leader in the firing line is President Ben Ali, whose posters are being destroyed. He’s ruled this country of 10 million people for the past 23 years. Tonight, the 74-year-old president took to the airwaves to address his people, telling them he had ordered his security forces to stop using firearms against protesters. He also demanded a cut in food prices and said he wouldn’t run for office again in 2014.

The question is whether that will be enough to stop these protests, and, if they continue, whether the president’s own army turns against him.

KWAME HOLMAN: And, in west Africa, U.N. officials in Ivory Coast reported they’re coming under attack by forces loyal to President Laurent Gbagbo. He’s refused to step down since apparently losing a November election. At least six U.N. vehicles were attacked today, and one was burned. Angry crowds also menaced other U.N. workers as they passed.

Lebanon’s political system struggled today to form a new government. Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s ruling coalition collapsed yesterday, when cabinet ministers from Hezbollah and its allies resigned. Hezbollah has the backing of Syria and Iran. Hariri leads a pro-Western bloc.

In U.S. economic news, the tide of home foreclosures may peak this year. The listing firm RealtyTrac estimated today that lenders will repossess 1.2 million homes during 2011. That’s up from just over a million foreclosures last year, the most ever recorded. About five million borrowers currently are at least two months behind on their mortgages.

On Wall Street, stocks struggled after new claims for unemployment benefits hit their highest level since October. The Dow Jones industrial average lost 23 points to close below 11,732. The Nasdaq fell two points to close at 2,735.

Those are some of the day’s major stories.