Thousands cut off as Europe suffers worst snow in years

Bosnia used helicopters yesterday to evacuate the sick and deliver food to thousands of people left stranded by its heaviest snowfall ever, while Pope Benedict XVI donned an overcoat to bless pilgrims who braved Rome’s unusually cold weather to visit St Peter’s Square.

“The snow is beautiful, but let’s hope spring comes soon,” the pope told the pilgrims, looking out over the result of Rome’s biggest snowstorm since 1986.

Across Eastern Europe, thousands of people continued to dig out from heavy snow that has fallen during a cold snap that struck more than a week ago and has killed hundreds of people.

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In Ukraine, the hardest hit area, temperatures have fallen as low as -36 Celsius. The government yesterday declared the country’s death toll at 131.

Around 2,300 other Ukrainians have sought treatment for frostbite or hypothermia. Many of the dead were homeless people with bodies being found in the streets under snow, in rivers and in doorways. More than 3,000 heated tents have been set up around the country to provide accommodation.

In Poland, prime minister Donald Tusk asked local authorities to waive the ban on admitting inebriated individuals to homeless shelters as eight more people died taking the death toll to 53, PAP news agency reported.

In Bosnia, more than 100 remote villages have been cut off by more than six feet of snow in the mountains. More than three feet fell in Sarajevo, the capital, where a state of emergency has been declared.

Three helicopters cruised over eastern Bosnia yesterday, delivering food and picking up people who needed evacuation. Sarajevo has been paralysed since Friday evening and authorities have ordered all schools closed. Residents have volunteered to remove snow and ice from the trams that are stuck along the city’s tracks.

In neighbouring Serbia, officials said 70,000 people remain cut off. So far, 32 municipalities throughout the country have introduced emergency measures.

In Montenegro, the north of the country remained cut off, although emergency crews have managed to clear some of the blocked roads.

The situation also had improved somewhat in Croatia, where bus traffic toward the coast resumed, even as snow slowed traffic throughout the country.

In the coastal town of Split, where authorities declared emergency measures, dozens of people sought medical help for injuries sustained on ice and snow. Snow is extremely rare in Split, which is on the Adriatic coast and better known as a holiday town.

Snow also has fallen on Spain’s Balearic islands in the Mediterranean.

The extreme cold also caused the death of at least three people in Hungary, national news agency MTI said, and at least five people froze to death in Lithuania over the weekend as the temperature fell below -30 Celsius overnight.

In Paris, the Eiffel Tower received a coating of snow and more downfalls were expected to bring problems to the French capital’s main airports.

The French death toll rose to five, after a 12-year old boy died of hypothermia after falling into a frozen pond in eastern France and two homeless people were found dead.

In Rome, Pope Benedict XVI managed to keep his Sunday appointment at the window of his studio overlooking St Peter’s Square, still covered with snow from the day before. Bundled up in a white overcoat, the pope blessed an unusually small crowd of pilgrims.

Meanwhile, Rome’s mayor is being criticised for the lack of snow ploughs and salters.

But the city counters that it can’t spend millions of euros on equipment that might not be used in decades.