Weather wreaks havoc in Europe

SEVERE winter weather has wreaked havoc across Europe, with nearly 200 people freezing to death in Poland, two killed by storms in Germany and floods threatening several European countries.

Most of the 183 victims of Poland's bitterly-cold winter were men who died of hypothermia after drinking heavily and falling sleep outside, police said.

In northern France, heavy snow caused transport chaos yesterday with thousands of motorists trapped in their cars and flights cancelled or delayed.

The icy roads and blizzards led to numerous road accidents, including two major pile-ups involving some 40 cars.

Around 15,000 motorists were stuck in traffic jams that stretched up to 160km out of Paris. Thousands of people had spent the night in their cars, as firefighters distributed hot soup and food.

Airports were also hit, with delays of up to three hours at Paris's two international airports and several cancellations.

Floods washed out parts of southern Belgium, took out Czech railways, and threatened northern Portugal, after rains and winds whipped up across western and central Europe overnight.

In Slovakia, a 51-year-old woman was killed and 15 injured, including four seriously, when the bus they were riding in spun out of control in high winds and crashed into a hillside. Officials in Germany said two people were killed and more than 20 injured by the severe weather.

In southern Germany, a 13-year-old boy was killed when a tree fell on a car being driven by his father, who was seriously injured. An 18-year-old driver also died when his vehicle crashed on a snowy highway in Henstedt-Ulzburg, northern Germany.

Makeshift sandbag barriers were erected to defend towns and houses, but the Rhine was close to nine metres in the western city of Cologne and was expected to reach 10.6 metres yesterday, only 40 centimetres before it would spill into Cologne's historic centre. Rivers in other parts of Germany including the Danube, the Elbe, the Weser and the Mosel also flooded large areas, cutting off roads and shipping.

Storms also swept through Switzerland overnight, injuring at least seven people. Four were injured near the capital Bern when a tree fell on their car, and two more received light injuries near Zurich. The seventh person was hit in Bern by a sheet of corrugated iron propelled by the winds.

Government officials in the resort town of Davos also put out avalanche warnings for the Alps, where warmer temperatures combined with fierce winds turned ice ledges into potentially deadly risks. Bern authorities said at least $2.7 million would be needed to clean up their canton alone

In Italy, a third of Venice was flooded, including Saint Mark's Square.

Mudslides also shut down some 20 rail lines throughout the central European country, and a number of regions went on high alert after waters rose in the Vltava and other Czech rivers.

In Belgium, rivers burst their banks, and major flooding was reported in the southern Ardennes forest.

In Portugal, also besieged by floodwaters, rescue workers searched the northern Douro river for up to three cars thought to have been swept away after a landslide.

Towns and villages throughout the Czech Republic narrowly escaped flooding yesterday as water levels began to recede, but snow brought traffic chaos to France and misery to thousands of Europeans.

The flood waters had threatened to inundate 20 towns and villages across the Czech Republic overnight, but most were spared a re-run of August, when rivers burst their banks causing death and destruction costing around $2.5 billion.

However, in the northwestern town of Usti nad Labem, near the German border, the River Elbe was expected to peak late yesterday rising up to 7.6 metres (25 ft), five metres above normal and the basements of several homes and businesses were already underwater.

Meanwhile, the wintry spell of weather across England is expected to continue this week, forecasters said last night.

Wet westerly winds turned northerly on Saturday, bringing Arctic air and snow showers in South-East England, particularly in Kent which was also among the worst-hit areas in recent floods.

The east coast of England including Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, also had sleet and snow while elsewhere the weather was dry and cold.

Last night, a PA WeatherCentre spokesman said the weather remained cold and bright with overnight frost and patches of freezing fog across the country.

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