By Stephanie van den Berg
BELGRADE — Ice-breakers Tuesday battled Europe’s big chill as the Danube river froze over more than 100 miles (170 kilometres), and dozens died of cold on a continent gripped by some of the lowest temperatures in decades.
The overall death toll from the cold snap that began 11 days ago edged past 400 while forecasters warned there would be no early let-up to the freezing weather.
In Serbia, ice-breakers were summoned from Hungary in an attempt to keep the Danube flowing, while army demolition experts sought to dynamite ice barriers that threatened to provoke flooding on tributary rivers, including the Ibar.
The Danube, one of Europe’s main rivers and a crucial transportation hub for eastern Europe, was barely navigable around Belgrade, and the port authority in Veliko Gradiste, near the Romanian and Bulgarian border, said river traffic was blocked along a 170-kilometre (105-mile) long stretch, from Kostolac to the Djerdap I hydropower plant.
“I have some 30 vessels blocked in Veliko Gradiste,” an official said.
Other countries linked by the Danube, including Austria, Bulgaria and Romania, also threw their forces into the battle as temperatures remained well below freezing.
In Bulgaria the Danube exploration agency said icing was at 20 percent near the Serbian border and up to 80 percent along a 220-kilometre stretch between the ports of Nikopol and Silistra further down river.
Navigation was impossible, the agency said, adding that the Danube delta leading into the Black Sea in Romania was completely frozen.
Upstream in Hungary, 13 icebreakers went into action but only managed to clear the ports of Baja and Gyor.
Ships were still moving in the area, but the ice was slowing traffic considerably, Hungary said.
“If the temperatures continue to be this low the ice could solidify on the Danube during next week as is already the case for smaller rivers,” Istvan Land, director of Hungary’s government water and environment agency OMIT.
In Austria, several river locks on the Danube were closed and river traffic was interrupted between southern Germany and parts of upper Austria.
Meanwhile, snow blanketed much of the Balkans with Serbia reporting 70,000 people trapped in villages in the south of the country where officials declared an “emergency situation”.
A train linking Croatia’s central coastal town of Split to the capital Zagreb derailed as a result of a snow drift. There were no reports of injuries.
The army, firefighters and rescue services attempted to get food and medicine to several hundred villages in southern Croatia as snow reached 1.4 metres (4.6 feet) in height.
“This is a disaster, we have been cut off from the rest of the world … Snowploughs cannot reach us, so we have to walk to get some bread and basic things,” Marko Ancic told the Slobodna Dalmacija daily after trekking some 17 kilometres (10 miles) from his village to the nearest town.
Large parts of eastern and southern Bosnia were also cut off by the snow and avalanches. There has been no contact since Friday with the hamlet of Zijemlje, some 30 kilometres from the town of Mostar.
“We don’t know what is going on there. They have not had electricity since Friday and phone lines are cut, they have no running water,” Radovan Palavestra, the mayor of Mostar, told AFP.
A helicopter which should have flown in aid to Zijemlje was unable to take off Tuesday morning because of heavy snowfall.
Schools were shut in large parts of Romania, including Bucharest, while many train services were cancelled. Around 40 percent of roads were also closed, although flights did resume from Bucharest airport.
Snowstorms lashed Bulgaria, a day after eight people drowned in raging rivers and the icy waters from a broken dam that submerged a whole village to the southeast.
Ukraine remained the country worst affected with a death toll standing at 136, but more bodies were found either on the streets, in cars or in homes in Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland, Hungary and across the Balkans.
The coldest place overnight was the Kvilda region of the Czech Republic where the mercury plunged to minus 39.4 degrees Celsius (-38.9 Fahrenheit).
The numbers killed by hypothermia in Poland rose to 68 after the authorities there recorded another six deaths in the last 24 hours. The majority of those who have died were homeless, many of whom had been drinking heavily.
The cold snap has also seen a sharp rise in the number of people being killed by carbon monoxide poisoning from faulty gas heaters or in fires, with 50 such cases in Poland alone.
The UN weather service said temperatures would remain low until March.
“We might expect the change in the current cold wave to to start easing from the start of next week up to the end of the month,” Omar Baddour, a scientist at the World Meteorological Organization, told reporters.
It was a similar message from Britain where forecasters said the cold spell could last for two more weeks and heavy snow at the weekend.
And in France, authorities appealed to households to save power where possible as they predicted electricity use could hit a record high.
In the Netherlands, rail traffic was slowed and a 55-year-old man drowned when ice gave way in Rijpwetering, in the west of the country, officials said.