Video: Unforgiving freeze torments eastern Europe

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 2/4/2012 8:20:47 AM ET 2012-02-04T13:20:47

Bitterly cold weather that has claimed hundreds of lives in eastern Europe swept westward over the continent on Saturday, blanketing Rome's Colosseum with snow for the first time in nearly three decades and disrupting air and rail traffic.

Russian gas exporter Gazprom said it was unable to meet increased European demand as it battles its own deep freeze, and had reduced supplies "for a few days" before returning them to normal levels.

In Belgrade, soldiers were deployed to clear the central boulevard. Hundreds of unemployed responded to an offer of 1,600 dinars (10 euros) pay to join snow clearing efforts.

"I haven't worked for months and I have a family to feed," said Zoran Djidovac, a 30-year-old former metal worker. "The authorities said we'll be working for several days so this money will make a change for a while."

Near Moscow, a couple and seven of their children died in a blaze at their makeshift home overnight, apparently victims of a badly rigged-up stove which burned out of control. A nine-year-old girl was the sole survivor, Russian state TV said.

But in the capital tens of thousands took to demonstrated to demand fair elections in a march against Vladimir Putin's 12-year rule despite minus 17 Celsius (1 Fahrenheit) conditions, and supporters of the prime minister staged a similar sized rally.

Story: 'Frozen fury': Thousands brave icy chill to protest in Moscow

To the west, hundreds of passengers spent the night at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport - one of the busiest in Europe - as their flights were delayed or cancelled.

Thirty percent of flights at London's Heathrow Airport on Sunday have been canceled amid forecasts for snow and severe weather.

In Rome, residents bewildered by their city's first big snowfall in 26 years used government-issued shovels to clear sidewalks and piazzas, and kitchen utensils to clear windshields Saturday.

The snow — as deep as 8 inches (20 centimeters) in some neighborhoods — made buses and taxis scarce and shut down tourist sites such as the Colosseum. It also covered the dome of St. Peter's Basilica, blanketed ancient arches in the Roman Forum, and toppled some towering umbrella pine tress near the Vatican.

Saturday's snowstorm, coming a day after a light snowfall, combined for the biggest accumulations since 1986, and left many motorists stranded on the city's beltway and its ancient and narrow consular roads.

Europe tries to shield homeless in deep freeze

Bosnia's government declared a state of emergency in its capital on Saturday after Sarajevo was paralyzed by snow, and hundreds of people remained trapped in their homes and vehicles throughout the country.

Image: Snow in Rome
Ettore Ferrari  /  EPA
A rare snowfall forced authorities to stop visitors from entering the Colosseum, Rome's famous tourist site.

More than three feet of snow fell in Sarajevo on Saturday, closing roads and public transportation. Some neighborhoods reported water shortages, and residents struggled to make it to local shops to shore up on food. Several people said they witnessed fist fights in shops over loaves of bread.

But the crisis also produced camaraderie.

In one area of central Sarajevo, men shoveling the deep snow were being given tea, coffee and hamburgers and meatballs that local women had barbecued. One elderly man who didn't know how to help out stood at an open window of his house playing his clarinet.

The presidents of Croatia and Serbia who had attended a meeting with the Bosnian leadership on Friday were holed up in the Jahorina mountains after being cut off by heavy snowfalls.

The cold spell touched North Africa too. Palm trees bowed under the weight of snow in Algiers after a freak snowfall of at least 10 cm (four inches) - the first there in eight years.

The ex-Soviet republic of Ukraine, where night temperatures have been as low as minus 33C (minus 27F ) in the past eight days, registered the highest death toll as bodies continued to be found, some buried in snow in outlying parts of the country.

STORY: Europe tries to shield homeless from deadly freeze

Stations become sanctuaries
Metro stations in the capital, Kiev, have become sanctuaries of warmth for the homeless. Emergency authorities have set up hundreds of heated tents around the country to provide food, drink and shelter.

"I live in a social care home most of the time. But they throw you out of there at 8 in the morning," said Olexander, a homeless man, at a refuge in a Kiev park on Saturday.

"It is good they have thought of putting these up," he said, nodding at the tent. "If we can just get through this frost, things will get easier."

The Emergencies Ministry said of the 122 people who have died over the past eight days from hypothermia and frostbite, 78 were found dead on the streets.

In neighboring Poland the story was similar with the dead mainly among the homeless. Several had been overcome by fumes from primitive stoves in poorly-ventilated premises. Others died by drinking too much and falling down, unnoticed, in the snow.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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