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04 March 2024

Nearly 300 die in European cold snap

A man and a child walk along an ice covered promenade on the bank of Lake Leman in Versoix near Geneva on Sunday. Bitterly cold weather sweeping across Europe claimed more victims on Sunday and brought widespread disruption to transport services, with warnings that the chilling temperatures would remain into next week. (Reuters)


The Arctic cold snap that has hit Europe for over a week had claimed nearly 300 lives by Sunday, brought air travel chaos to London and dumped snow as far south as Rome and even North Africa.

The grim winter toll rose in Ukraine, Poland, Italy and France, where two homeless people found frozen to death were the latest victims, with authorities across the continent reporting at least 297 fatalities.

London's Heathrow Airport, the world's busiest air hub by passenger traffic, cancelled a third of the day's flights, while much of Britain was blanketed in snow, leaving drivers stranded on roads overnight.

In Italy, which reported a seventh victim, snow-covered Rome was virtually paralysed, thousands of people were trapped on trains, and the weather emergency sparked runs on supermarkets.

"I couldn't get hold of any food at the supermarket, people are stocking up like they did with bread in 1943," Rome resident Salvatore Merlo said on Twitter. "Rome has the infrastructure of a third world country."

In worst-hit Ukraine, another nine deaths raised the toll to 131 -- most of them homeless people who perished on the streets -- since the deep freeze started nine days ago, said the emergencies ministry.

Some 1,800 people had now been hospitalised, and 75,000 people had sought warmth and food in over 3,000 shelters.

In Poland, the cold claimed eight new victims, bringing the toll to 53.

In Serbia, which has recorded nine deaths, states of emergency have been declared in 32 municipalities, mostly in the south and southwest.

Almost 70,000 people remained cut off in snowed-in villages, with police and military units providing basic necessities, said Predrag Maric, the police official in charge of Serbia's emergency services.

In Romania, six new deaths have brought the toll to 34.

In Finland, overnight temperatures plummeted to minus 40 degrees Celsius (minus 32 degrees Fahrenheit), but did not deter many Helsinki voters from turning out to vote in a presidential election.

Motorists were warned of more arctic winds and slick roads and poor visibility because of powdery snow.

Similar conditions led to pile-ups on Friday near Helsinki, in which more than 200 cars were involved, and which saw about 40 people taken to hospital.

Much of Britain was blanketed in snow, and in southeast England, motorway drivers were forced to spend the night in their cars as drifts of up to 16 centimetres (6.3 inches) ground traffic to a halt.

Air traffic was hit too, and a Heathrow spokesman told AFP: "We've cancelled approximately 30 per cent of the day's flights. We're continuing to tell passengers to contact their airline before they travel."

Stansted, Manchester, Birmingham and Luton airports were brought to a standstill for part of Saturday night due to snow on the runways.

In Italy, more than 400 members of the armed forces helped clear cities after the heaviest snowfall in 27 years.

In Rome, black ice covered streets as snowed-in residents were warned of food shortages and the national rail operator faced class actions after hundreds of people were trapped in trains.

In France, the bodies of two homeless people were discovered -- a 46-year-old woman in the town of Compiegne, north of Paris, and a 56-year-old man found on a Paris building's fire escape -- bringing the toll to five.

The cold front has even brought rare snow to North Africa.

In Algeria, at least 16 people died and more than 100 have been injured since snow covered cities over the weekend, blocking hundreds of roads, and left villages in the mountain area of Kabylia isolated. Five of the deaths were reported to have been due to separate cases of carbon monoxide poisoning linked to gas heating.