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updated 11/16/2011 5:08:42 PM ET 2011-11-16T22:08:42

Thousands of flesh-eating piranhas have infested a river beach popular with tourists in western Brazil and have bitten at least 15 unwary swimmers, authorities said Wednesday.

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Officials in the city of Caceres in Mato Grosso state said this is the first time they have had a problem with piranhas at the Daveron beach on the Paraguay river, where the aggressive fish began schooling about two weeks ago.

"People have got to be very careful. If they're bitten, they've got to get out of the water rapidly and not allow the blood to spread," firefighter Raul Castro de Oliveira told Globo TV's G1 website.

Elson de Campos Pinto, 22, was bitten Sunday.

"I took a dip in the river and when I stood up, I felt pain in my foot," Pinto told G1. "I saw that I had lost the tip of my toe. I took off running out of the river, afraid that I would be further attacked because of the blood. I'm not going back in for a long time."

City officials said the beach will remain open because it's an important draw for tourists in Brazil's Pantanal region, known for its ecotourism.

Each September, Caceres hosts what local officials bill as Brazil's biggest fishing festival, a weeklong event that draws 200,000 people for fishing tournaments and concerts.

Gonzaga Junior, a spokesman for the city government, said he didn't think the piranha attacks would hurt that event since it is many months away.

He tried to put the best face on the problem.

"Everyone knows there are piranhas in the region and have always taken the necessary precautions," he said. "What is different this time is that they've appeared where they never appeared before."

The city has seen far fewer people than normal use the beach recently because of the piranha attacks. It was deserted Tuesday, a national holiday in Brazil, normally a heavy beach day.

Officials have put up large signs warning swimmers about the piranhas, reading in blood red letters: "Attention swimmers. Area at risk of piranha attacks. Danger!"

Local fisherman Hildegard Galeno Alves said that when he throws out a fishing net near the beach of late he catches numerous piranhas.

"I come here with my kids and I always see blood on the river banks," he told G1. "The worst is that the attacks are in shallow water, next to the bank."

Despite making his living off the river, Alves left no doubt about his feelings for the water.

"I would never even think of going in there," he said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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