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Bosnian people wave to a helicopter as they await food supplies after being cut off by the snow. AP Photo/Radul Radovanovic
Winter Weather

Helicopters evacuate Eastern Europeans stranded in cold snap

The death toll from a severe cold spell across Eastern Europe has risen to 85.

RESCUE HELICOPTERS evacuated dozens of people from snow-blocked villages in Serbia and Bosnia and air-lifted in emergency food and medicine as a severe cold spell kept Eastern Europe in its icy grip.

The death toll from the cold rose to 83 on today and emergency crews worked overtime as temperatures sank to -32.5 C in some areas.

Parts of the Black Sea froze near the Romanian coastline and the rare snow fell on Croatian islands in the Adriatic Sea. In Bulgaria, 16 towns recorded their lowest temperatures since records started 100 years ago as four more people were reported dead from hypothermia.

In central Serbia, choppers pulled out 12 people, including nine who went to a funeral but then could not get back over icy, snow-choked roads. Two more people froze to death in the snow and two others are missing, bringing that nation’s death toll to five.

“The situation is dramatic, the snow is up to five metres high in some areas, you can only see rooftops,” said Dr Milorad Dramacanin, who participated in the helicopter evacuations.

Helicopters evacuate Eastern Europeans stranded in cold snap
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    A woman and children warm their hands, surrounded by a heat shimmer, at the eternal flame located in the middle of Liberty Monument in St Petersburg, Russia. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky/PA Images)
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    Bosnian people carrying food supplies in a remote village cut of by road due high snow fall, near Bosnian town of Sokolac today.(AP Photo/Radul Radovanovic/PA Images)
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    An elderly woman walks on snow covered sidewalk on a cold winter day in Sofia, Bulgaria today. (AP Photo/Valentina Petrova/PA Images)
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    Deer run in a snow covered field near the village of Mileikovo, 100km north-west of Minsk, Belarus. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits/PA Images)
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    A child is carried by its father in a backpack on a cold winters day in Sofia. (AP Photo/Valentina Petrova/PA Images)
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    Inmates from the neighboring Jilava prison carry shovels at a snowed in stray dog shelter in Glina, Romania. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda/PA Images)
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    A child walks along a sea wall covered in ice on the frozen shores of the Black Sea in Constanta, Romania today. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda/PA Images)
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    Playing on the ice at Brno, Czech Republic. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek/PA Images)

One of the evacuees was an elderly woman who had fallen into a coma. She survived after being airlifted to a hospital. Two helicopters were also used today to rescue people and supply remote villages in northern Bosnia.

“We are trying to get through to several small villages, with each just a few elderly residents,” said Bosnian rescue official Milimir Doder. “All together some 200-300 people are cut off. We are supplying them for the second day with food and medication.”

Some Bosnian villages have had no electricity for days and crews were working around-the-clock trying to fix power lines.

“The snow is about two metres high and we have cleared off paths that look more like tunnels,” Doder said. “It is going well but if there is more snow coming, then the situation may get critical.”

Death toll rising

Ukraine alone reported 43 deaths, mostly of homeless people. The country’s Emergency Situations Ministry said 28 people had been found dead on the streets, eight died in hospitals and seven in their homes. Over 720 others were hospitalised with hypothermia and frostbite.

Authorities have deployed over 1,730 heating shelters across the country, handing out hot tea, coffee, boiled potatoes and pork fat — a traditional Ukrainian dish — to the homeless. Hospitals were told not to discharge homeless patients even if their treatment was finished to protect them from the cold.

Prime Minister Mykola Azarov urged Ukrainians to stay vigilant, dress warmly and help each other in the face of the severe weather.

“I call on citizens, enterprises, organisations not to be indifferent, to support and protect those people who cannot help themselves in this difficult time,” Azarov said in a statement Wednesday. “We are one people.”

His comments after some experts suggested Ukraine’s high death toll was linked to authorities’ unwillingness and incompetence in dealing with the homeless.

Pavlo Rozenko, an expert on social policy with the Kiev-based Razumkov Center, said Ukrainian authorities often suffer from the Soviet legacy of viewing the homeless as alcoholics, drug addicts and do-nothings who need to be punished instead of helped.

“The country doesn’t know yet how to take care of its homeless,” Rozenko said.

In Romania, temperatures plunged to -32.5 C, and six homeless people died in the past 24 hours of hypothermia, the health ministry reported. Hundreds of other people were sent to shelters to protect them from the extreme cold.

Five people died of hypothermia in the last day in Poland, bringing its toll up to 20 since Friday.

Several schools across Hungary suspended classes, including one in the east that said it could not afford the high heating bills. The airport in Montenegro’s capital Podgorica was closed down for all flights late Wednesday because of heavy snowfall.

In Russia, temperatures fell to -21 C in Moscow but only one person was reported to have died of the cold.

Despite the freezing temperatures, Gyorgy Schirilla, a 50-year-old sportsman, said he would go ahead with his annual swim on Saturday with no protective gear cross the Danube River — a distance of 500 metres — in the northern Hungarian city of Vac.

“I’m not afraid of the challenge,” Schirilla said. “This will be my 15th crossing. Two years ago … I had to fend off ice floes weighing several tons.”

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