European cold snap 'kills 250'

Sat, Feb 4, 2012, 00:00

At least 250 people have died during a cold snap in which temperatures have plummeted to minus 30 degrees and below across eastern Europe, with Ukraine the hardest hit.

The cold has killed 122 people in Ukraine, where many of the dead were living on the streets. Health officials have ordered hospitals to stop discharging homeless patients after they are treated for hypothermia and frostbite, while authorities have set up nearly 3,000 heating and food shelters.

They said 78 were found dead on the streets, 32 in their homes and that a further 12 succumbed while receiving medical treatment.

The week-long cold spell, eastern Europe’s worst in decades, is causing power cuts, frozen water pipes and the widespread closure of schools, nurseries, airports and bus routes.

Temperatures plummeted to minus 37 degrees in northern Slovakia and rescue workers had to dig through snow on mountain roads to rescue stranded bus passengers in the Balkans.

In Romania, 80 per cent of the Danube river was frozen over, stopping ships sailing to the Black Sea, but the biggest concern was for children in the European Union's second poorest country.

Child protection officers in the city of Iasi took three girls into care after a four-month-old baby died in an unheated house where temperatures dipped as low as minus 20 degrees.

"These children were already suffering from malnutrition. When the cold hit, their situation went from bad to worse to catastrophic," a spokesman said.

As many as 15,000 children in Iasi may be at risk from the cold and a further six children had been taken into care, the spokesman said. The cold snap has so far killed 24 people in Romania and 11 in neighbouring Bulgaria.

The European Union said the supply of Russian gas fell further to some Eastern European states as well as Italy, Greece and Austria, but said it was not yet facing an emergency. All EU states have obtained extra gas from other sources.

Clare Nullis, spokeswoman for the UN's World Meteorological Organisation, told reporters that Europe's unseasonably warm December and January meant this would not be a record-breaking winter.

However, those words were little comfort to many in the Balkans where fresh snow overnight added to the crisis.

The Serbian government has so far declared a state of emergency in 19 municipalities in the south and east, where six people have died from cold.

Six other people died in Bosnia from the cold, including four who died on the streets of the capital Sarajevo.

In the southern region of Svrljig, firefighters worked for hours to evacuate passengers from a bus stranded on a mountain road, while a second bus was trapped by an avalanche in the eastern Bosnian village of Krupac. No casualties were reported.

"The situation has worsened," said Predrag Maric, head of the Serbian interior ministry's department for emergencies.

A funeral procession near the border with Macedonia was stuck for four hours and had to transfer the coffin to a 4x4 jeep. In the northern town of Ecka, workers in a local fishery had to use pneumatic drills to break ice and get to the fish.

"I have not seen anything like this for more than two decades," said fisherman Nikola Kircic.

Local hunters were using tractors to take food to animals in the mountains of southwestern Satornja.

"Roe deer and other small game are on the verge of starvation as the grass is under heavy snow," said local hunter Momir Nikolic.

Albania registered its first casualty, a 63-year-old man believed to have died from the cold on his way home in the northern region of Bulqize.

German weather service DWD said it expected extreme cold to continue in central and eastern Europe for the next four days, but that temperatures would rise back above freezing point in most parts of France and Britain.

As the Siberian front moved west, Dutch ice breakers cleared access to Rotterdam, Europe's biggest port.

But organisers of the Elfstedentocht - a 200km (125 mile) speed skating race across the country's waterways - were praying for thicker ice in the hope they could stage the competition for the first time since 1997. Dozens of over-enthusiastic skaters fell through the ice as they tested conditions.

Other sporting fixtures across the continent have been cancelled.

Croatia's Adriatic coast and many of its islands were blanketed in snow - rare so far south - covering palm trees in the port of Split and bringing some residents out on skis. The island of Solta, just off Split, saw 30 cm (12 inches) of snow.

Snow fell on the northern tip of Africa, dusting palm trees in the Algerian capital. Locals said it was the first time they remembered snow falling in Algiers in eight years. Temperatures fell to about minus 1 degree unusually low for the port city on the Mediterranean Sea.

In Italy, the heaviest snowfall in the capital Rome since the 1980s closed tourists attractions including the Colosseum and the Forum.

An 82-year-old man became the first casualty in France after dying of hypothermia on Friday. The man had left his house in eastern France with just his pyjamas to protect him from minus 14 degrees temperatures.

Lorry traffic across the south of the country was suspended.

In the Baltic states, no strangers to cold weather, parts of eastern Latvia and Lithuania saw record lows of minus 30 degrees, and lender Swedbank warned some cash machines would break down.

The Czech Republic's capital Prague shut a major section of the city's ring road after a burst pipe sprayed water across the highway, creating a 400-metre-long sheet of ice.

An emergency services spokesman there said one man had apparently used the cold to commit suicide. "He drank a bottle of alcohol, took his clothes off and sat in a park."

Agencies