FRANCE GN - Three rescue workers on a mission to help people caught in floods in southern France were killed when their helicopter crashed near Marseille.

The EC145 aircraft had been on a rescue and reconnaissance flight in the Var region on Sunday night when contact with it was lost, officials said.

The crashed helicopter and the three crew were found near the town of Rove. An investigation is under way.Heavy rain in south-east France has led to severe flooding and several deaths.

In a statement, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner and his deputy, Laurent Nuñez, described the three victims as “everyday heroes who gave their lives to protect the French”.

The crash site in hills north of Marseille has been sealed off as police and investigators combed the scene, French media reported.

Sources close to the investigation said poor visibility caused by fog could have been a factor.

Emergency teams sealed off the crash

site at Rove, near Marseille

At least six people have died in floods in south-eastern France in recent weeks. On Sunday a shepherd in the Var region was swept away as he tried to cross a swollen stream in his vehicle while tending to his flock. His body was later found in the 4x4 further downstream.

Also on Sunday, the owner of a stables was found dead in the same region after he was also swept away, officials said.

Residents described violent walls of water that crashed through doors and quickly inundated homes. A Villegailhenc resident described for French news channel BFMTV how little time there was to escape.

Some of the dead appeared to have been swept away by floodwaters, Aude prefect Alain Thirion said. In the town of Conques-sur-Orbiel, the river rose by more than six meters (20 feet), and floodwaters were in some cases too powerful for emergency services to get through, even on boats, he said.

Vigicrues, the French agency that monitors rivers for flood risks, said water levels in the Aude region were higher than at any time since 1891.

Television images showed water coursing through towns and villages, stranding cars and piling them on top of each other like children’s toys.

The French government rushed hundreds of rescue workers to the flood zone and helicopters buzzed overhead.