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    Floods close Lourdes pilgrimage site in Pyrenees

    LOURDES, France — Heavy floods in southwest France have left two dead and forced the closure of the Catholic pilgrimage site in Lourdes and the evacuation of pilgrims from nearby hotels.

    Muddy flood waters swirled on Wednesday in the grotto where nearly 6 million believers from around the world, many gravely ill, come every year seeking miracles and healing. It has been a major pilgrimage site since a French girl’s vision of the Virgin Mary there in 1858.

    Heavy rains around the region inundated town centers and swelled the Gave de Pau river, forcing road closures.

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    Interior Minister Manuel Valls said a man in his 70s died Wednesday, swept away by the river. The Interior Ministry says it is the second person who has died in this week’s rains.

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    The spokesman for the Lourdes pilgrimage complex, Mathias Terrier, said the site in the foothills of the Pyrenees wasn’t likely to reopen before the end of the week.

    Rescue services evacuated hundreds of people from nearby hotels. Authorities were particularly concerned with bringing weak and sick pilgrims to safety.

    ‘‘We need more reinforcements in the area to face these floods, which are really exceptional,’’ Valls said while visiting Lourdes on Wednesday. He said days of sustained rains and sudden snowmelt made the flooding worse, and left some villages isolated.

    Throughout Tuesday, Masses were gradually canceled. One by one, entrances to the sanctuary were cordoned off.

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    Terrier said waters reached about 5 feet in the grotto. A group of 3,000 children scheduled to come for the day Wednesday were told to stay away.

    Associated Press