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Leading Argentine presidential candidate returns from Italy for floods in province he governs

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Argentina's leading presidential candidate returned from Italy on Thursday, cutting short his trip amid growing complaints about his absence during widespread flooding in the province he governs.

Buenos Aires provincial Gov. Daniel Scioli told reporters he went to Italy for medical treatment for a prosthetic arm. The former boat racer lost his right arm in an accident.

Scioli criticized opposition candidates and others who questioned the timing of his trip. He said he was in constant contact with emergency personnel and returned immediately upon hearing the situation had worsened.

"The adversary is climate change. I don't look at this in political terms and I'm sorry about those who want to look at it that way," said Scioli, visibly tired. He added that his focus was on helping people who have been forced from their homes.

The storms in northern Buenos Aires province have dropped a record total of 14 inches (35 centimeters) of rain over the last several days, destroying many homes and forcing the evacuation of several thousand people.

Some residents blamed poor infrastructure for the destructive flooding. In 2013, at least 80 people died in the provincial capital of La Plata as flooding from days of heavy rains and rising rivers engulfed the area.

Scioli declared a state of emergency Thursday, freeing up funds to help people who have been evacuated. He also said authorities were working to drain areas with standing water.

Scioli is President Cristina Fernandez's preferred successor. In Sunday's open primaries, he got 38 percent of the vote compared to 30 percent for opposition candidate Mauricio Macri and others from his alliance.

PHOTO: Men row their boats on a flooded street in Lujan, Argentina, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015. More than 11,000 people had been evacuated by Tuesday from parts of Argentina's largest province after heavy weekend rains caused rivers to rise precipitously, a top official said. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
Men row their boats on a flooded street in Lujan, Argentina, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015. More than 11,000 people had been evacuated by Tuesday from parts of Argentina's largest province after heavy weekend rains caused rivers to rise precipitously, a top official said. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Heavy rains affected the primaries, with flooding prompting election officials to move polling stations in several areas of the vast Buenos Aires province. After taking a victory lap on Monday, Scioli traveled to Italy on Tuesday.

Opposition candidates didn't hesitate to highlight his absence as the situation worsened Tuesday and Wednesday.

Macri, the outgoing mayor of Buenos Aires, said his administration was coordinating emergency response with provincial leaders because "they are complaining about a certain absence."

Sergio Mass, the other leading opposition candidate, called Scioli's trip "inopportune."

Even some in Scioli's own party appeared surprised by his absence.

"I didn't know about his trip. I didn't speak with him before or after," said Anibal Fernandez, the president's Cabinet chief. "It's not my responsibility to make a value judgment about this."

Scioli is no stranger to the bright lights of politics. He was vice president in the administration of Fernandez's predecessor and late husband, Nestor Kirchner, and currently oversees the country's largest province, which includes about a third of Argentine voters.

On Thursday, he spoke in unusually personal terms about the rigors of the campaign and how it had influenced his decision to go to Europe.

"Often the stress (of the campaign) has pushed me to the limit of pain for my physical problem," he said, adding that he seeks medical treatment in Germany, France and Italy.


Peter Prengaman on Twitter: http://twitter.com/peterprengaman

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