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Europe: Cold Weather, Heavy Snow, And Fuel Problems Chill Continent

Prague, 31 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - An army of winter-hardened rescuers worked around the clock today to free 300 or more people in about 120 vehicles trapped by avalanches in a tunnel in the Caucasus mountains in southern Russia.

News reports say some rescuers are bringing food, blankets and clothes to the trapped motorists and truckers. Others are helping to evacuate on foot some of the travelers. Still others are attempting to clear avalanche-piled snow from the northern tunnel mouth by detonating explosives. Many of those trapped, especially truck drivers, reportedly are declining evacuation, fearful that their vehicles and cargoes will be stolen. Several people have died, including one of two babies born while their mothers were trapped in the tunnel.

Across Europe, a rare cold snap that began during the Christmas holidays is claiming lives and creating terrible hardships. The Associated Press reported that by yesterday at least 140 deaths in Europe -- from Madrid to Moscow -- had been recorded as directly resulting from the weather. The temperature has fallen as low as minus-37 degrees Centigrade in parts of Poland and is predicted to remain about minus-20 degrees for days more. In places, these are the lowest temperatures reported in a third of a century.

News service roundups of weather-related news say the poor, the homeless and the elderly are hit hardest.

Ten people are reported to have died in Moscow during the past week and more than 250 were hospitalized.

ITAR-Tass news agency reports today that about 1,500 homes in the northern Russian city of Murmansk are without natural gas to provide heat over New Year's. The temperature is expected to drop to minus-10 Celsius there tonight, accompanied by storm-force winds. ITAR-Tass says city authorities failed to pay gas suppliers and the utility company is refusing to provide additional gas. Ten train cars with liquefied gas reportedly are on the way to Murmansk, but it's unclear when homes will begin receiving gas. Other towns in the Kola peninsula are similarly stricken.

Our Warsaw correspondent today reports that more than 30 deaths have been recorded in Poland, mostly of homeless people or drinkers who fell asleep outside. Bodies of older people have been discovered in cold apartments or on the deserted roads. Severe weather is predicted to continue at least until the end of the week.

In the second biggest Polish city, Lodz, water service is disrupted by frozen pipelines. Polish state refineries are under criticism for failing to produced enough heavy fuel oil.

Coninciding with the cold crisis, Russia has cut fuel supplies to Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova. And -- because of a pipeline-fees dispute between Moscow and Ashgabat -- Turkmenistan has cut service to Georgia. Bulgaria and Romania, also suffering fuel shortages, are seeking oil supplies from Iraq under the United Nations Security Council-approved oil-for-food deal.

Romania's Prime Minister Victor Ciorbea appealed to police to go to the aid of the homeless after at least 20 died from the cold in Romania.

The bodies of two homeless were discovered in the streets of Madrid on Monday, taking the number of dead in Spain to five. Many other deaths are reported in Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, and eslewhere.

In the Czech Republic, two men died when a central heating boiler exploded because of frozen pipes. In Britain, a couple drowned at Grays, near London, when they plunged into a frozen lake to try to save their Labrador dog. The dog swam to safety.

Italian authorities put normally-sunny Sardinia on alert. Heavy snowfalls are forecast until January 3 there. Further south, the 300 inhabitants on the tiny island of Linosa near Sicily have been cut off for the past six days due to mountainous seas.

European transport networks are widely disrupted. The German national air carrier Lufthansa cancelled about 40 domestic flights yesterday as the majority of the country's airports were under snow and ice, with Frankfurt worst hit.