Europe's deep freeze: death toll mounts


TEMPERATURES PLUNGED below -30 degrees in eastern Europe last night as the winter freeze claimed its 300th victim.

Italy’s heaviest snowfall in a quarter of a century triggered a run on supermarkets, while children built snowmen on St Peter’s Square.

Heading the winter death toll is Ukraine, where 131 have perished so far in the bitter weather, mostly from hypothermia.

Yesterday, rescue teams combed the streets of the capital, Kiev, to bring the city’s homeless to shelters.

“I’m just thankful to the people who give us help and give us something to eat, otherwise we would die,” said one woman, Nina, to German television.

In Poland, the extreme cold has claimed 62 lives since late January, with temperatures nearing -30 degrees yesterday and fresh snowfall expected today and tomorrow.

In Bulgaria, four people were killed and 50 evacuated from their village when melting snow burst a nearby dam. Authorities in Sofia warned neighbouring Greece and Turkey that other dams were expected to overflow as snow continued to melt.

In Hungary, about 15 people have died so far in the subzero temperatures.

Pope Benedict donned an overcoat to bless pilgrims on a white St Peter’s Square.

“The snow is beautiful, but let’s hope spring comes soon,” said the German pontiff, looking out over Rome’s biggest snowfall since 1986.

Snowfall cut off electricity to about 100,000 Italians. Russian energy giant Gazprom said it was increasing gas supplies to normal after increased demand prompted a drop over the weekend.

The European Commission confirmed that the situation had stabilised from Bulgaria through to Slovakia and Austria.

“It has become better over the weekend,” said EU energy spokeswoman Marlene Holzner. “We are in close contact with the member states.”

Six days of curtailed energy supplies in Italy has created what industry minister Corrado Passera described as a “critical situation”.

In the Balkans, extreme weather resulted in historical tensions being set aside as Serbian helicopter crews airlifted supplies to rural Bosnian villages cut off by snow drifts up to three metres deep.

“We have to show solidarity in times like this,” said pilot Zelja Kovacevic. “This is about people in danger. I just hope we will get to all people who need our help.”

Bosnia has reported eight dead while the death toll in Serbia is 10. Authorities have declared a state of emergency, with 11,000 people cut off and all schools shut for a week to conserve energy.

In Romania, weather forecasters are predicting another week of extreme weather, with the Black Sea already white and ready to freeze over in the next two days.

Serbian schoolchildren were not the only ones cheering on the deep freeze: in Germany’s wine- growing regions, teams have spread out in extreme temperatures to harvest frozen grapes left on the vines for “Eiswein” or “ice wine”, a German speciality.

When still frozen, the grapes are pressed for tiny quantities of honey-like liquid. The extreme effort is well worth it for wine producers, with small 375ml bottles selling on average for €50.