Villagers scramble for fuel as Europe’s big chill bites

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Hungarian villagers were scavenging for coal with their bare hands on Thursday (2 February) as a blast of Siberian air killed scores in Eastern Europe and looked set to keep its icy grip on the continent for days to come.

At least 139 people have died across Eastern Europe and Germany since the cold snap began, interrupting what had been an unusually mild European winter.

More than 100 people have died in the Ukraine alone, the government announced on 3 February.

In the Hungarian village of Farkaslyuk, where temperatures had fallen to -22 degrees Celsius, people clambered up a 30-metre spoil heap from a disused mine to scrape together enough coal to heat their homes and cook for a few days.

"This saves us from going to prison," said Jozsef Bari, a Roma and father of three who used to work in the mine, standing in a three-meter-deep pit dug in the slag heap.

"If we had not had this, we could all go to steal wood (in the forest), and then we would all be chased (by police)."

The cold snap for central Europe is expected to continue into mid-February as an area of high pressure camps over Russia, pushing cold dry air southwards, said German meteorologist Helmut Malewski.

In Ukraine, the country worst hit by the cold snap, schools shut and supermarkets in the capital, Kiev, began to report food shortages as delivery trucks struggled in temperatures as low as -25C°.

Twenty people died there in the space of 24 hours, taking the overall toll to 63, many of them homeless.

The Red Cross said it was releasing funds to build shelters for street-dwellers in Belarus and Ukraine, echoing a similar move by governments across the region.

"Homeless people have been caught unawares and unprepared. They don't follow long-range forecasts and are extremely vulnerable," said Zlatko Kovac of the Red Cross.

Snow drifts blocking roads and runways, ice seizing up railway points and sub-zero temperatures freezing fuel and car batteries caused more transport misery.

In the Serbian region of Ivanjica, schoolchildren rode to school on horseback and villagers used the animals to fetch supplies. Residents said they feared wolves would begin to venture into residential areas in search of food.

Europe's weather warning service, Meteoalarm, maintained its red alert warning for Serbia, where 11,000 people in rural areas remained cut off by snow.

Helicopters flew rescue missions to evacuate the elderly and dispatch supplies as 30cm of fresh snow fell overnight in neighboring Bosnia, on 1 February.

Croatia's coastal resorts received an unusual covering of snow but in Romania, boats that had been locked rigid in the frozen Black Sea were able to sail again. In the capital, Bucharest, temperatures remained bitter, offering Emil Boc's government some respite as protesters who had rallied against austerity for weeks stayed indoors.

Temperatures in parts of northern Slovakia dipped to their lowest level in 50 years.

Western Europe

In Western Europe, Italy shivered as Rome, Florence and Siena nestled under a rare blanket of snow.

Britain's Met Office put the whole of England on a level 3 alert – the second highest – for severe cold weather, while France put around a quarter of its administrative departments on orange alert and snow fell as far south as the Mediterranean island of Corsica.

In Brussels, the iconic 400-year-old 'Manneken-Pis' statue of a young boy urinating had to be switched off because of fears that ice could damage its internal mechanisms.

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