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11 December 2023

Snowfall, blizzards hit Middle East

A man walks along a deserted street during snowfall in the besieged town of Arbeen in the eastern Ghouta of Damascus. (Reuters)

By Reuters

A storm buffeted the Middle East with blizzards, rain and strong winds, keeping people at home across the region and raising concerns for Syrian refugees facing freezing temperatures in flimsy shelters.

Snowfall and gales in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley destroyed some refugee tents. "There's no firewood, no diesel," said Ali Eshtawi, a refugee from Homs who spoke by phone from a camp near the Syrian border where he said snow had caused three tents to collapse, leaving 19 people without shelter.

Snow blocked roads in the Valley, where more than 400,000 Syrian refugees are sheltering. A 35-year-old shepherd and an eight-year-old boy with him died in the storm in a mountainous area near to Syria, Lebanon's National News Agency said.

The storm is forecast to last several days, threatening further disruption in Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Jordan, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which have all been affected.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies made an emergency appeal in support of displaced people in Iraq and the United Nations launched a winter cash assistance programme to provide for 41,000 Syrian refugee children in camps in Jordan.

The Norwegian Refugee Council said the assistance was insufficient and said this could prove fatal for the refugees.

Snow also fell on Jordan's main Zaatari refugee camp, which houses over 70,000 Syrian refugees.

Transport was widely disrupted. Police closed the main highways to Jerusalem intermittently, while Beirut airport was briefly closed on Tuesday night.

Damascus was carpeted with snow as were large areas of Turkey.

Turkish Airlines cancelled dozens of flights between Turkish cities and to several international destinations. Budget airline Pegasus also cancelled some flights.

Night-time temperatures in Ankara were forecast to plunge to minus 17 degrees Centigrade.

Turkish natural gas consumption hit record levels as people tried to heat their homes, forcing some gas-fired power stations to switch to fuel oil to generate electricity, an energy official said.

Wind and rain struck the Gaza Strip, where infrastructure and thousands of homes were destroyed in a 50-day war with Israel last summer.

"Even nature is angry. I hope God is not angry with us ... I am frightened for the fate of those without shelters, whose houses have been destroyed," said Gaza City resident Abu Ahmed, heading to buy fuel for a fire.

Gaza has electricity for six hours a day.