Ukraine cold spell claimed nearly 600 lives

/ Source: The Associated Press

Some 589 people died from the cold in Ukraine over a 15-day period of record-breaking low temperatures last month, the Health Ministry said Wednesday.

The deaths occurred between Jan. 16 and Jan. 31, the ministry said in a statement.

Nearly 7,000 Ukrainians asked for medical help as temperatures dipped to around -13 F, but only about half required hospitalization. The ministry said the victims were mostly homeless and intoxicated people. The majority were from the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.

Meanwhile, President Viktor Yushchenko ordered his government Wednesday to end an 11-day-long heating outage in a Ukrainian city by Feb. 11 and said those responsible for the unprecedented breakdown must be held responsible.

Some 60,000 people have been shivering in unheated apartments in Alchevsk since Jan. 22, when the eastern city's heating system failed during the cold spell.

The shutdown occurred when one of the main pipes pumping hot water from a central boiler into apartment houses, schools and other municipal buildings froze and broke down. A government delegation was expected to travel to Alchevsk on Thursday to oversee repairs, Yushchenko said in a statement.

Yushchenko visited the city Monday and blamed local officials for the problems.

During his visit, the president proposed that all of Alchevsk's children be sent to Ukraine's Crimean resorts until heating is restored. The first 655 children were scheduled to head south on Wednesday, the news agency Interfax reported.

Last week's cold snap caused a record jump in gas consumption in Ukraine as this country's aging and inefficient heating systems struggled to cope.

Temperatures have since risen to more normal winter levels in Ukraine, with many schools and other businesses that had closed last week reopening this week.