At least 16 people are feared dead and many went missing after a dam holding back waste water from an iron ore mine in Brazil burst on Thursday, flooding a nearby town with mudslides and destroyed several homes.

The dam is owned by mining company Samarco, a joint venture between Brazilian company Vale and Australia's BHP Billiton.

BHP Billiton said the company is yet to make full assessment of the casualties and extent of the damage caused by the flood with darkness hampering it. But G1 news service of the Globo Media group reported citing the local union that between 15 and 16 people died and 45 others were missing, according to Reuters

The news agency added that civil defence authorities in Mariana said they were evacuating about 600 people to higher ground from the village of Bento Rodrigues and people from another village downhill called Paracatú de Baixo were also being evacuated.

Samarco said in a statement: "There was a breach of their dams located at the Germano unit, in the cities of Ouro Preto and Mariana (MG)."

"The organisation is mobilising every effort to prioritize care for people and the mitigation of environmental damage. The authorities were informed and responsible teams are on site to provide assistance," it added.