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Rare snowfall in Istanbul and Athens paralyzes cities, sparks rescues

People walk in a snow-covered park with the Hagia Sophia in the background
People walk in a snow-covered park with the Hagia Sophia in the background in Istanbul, Turkey, on Tuesday.
(Emrah Gurel / Associated Press)
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Rescue crews in Istanbul and Athens dug through snow and ice Tuesday to clear paralyzed roads and rescue people stranded overnight in their cars after snowstorms and a massive cold front brought much of Turkey and Greece to a standstill. Two storm-related deaths were reported.

Highways and roads in Istanbul became clogged Monday after the storm pounded the city of 16 million that straddles Europe and Asia, dropping more than 31 inches of snow in some areas. Stranded motorists spent the night in their cars, abandoned their vehicles to walk home or crowded subways and other limited public transportation.

All highways and main roads in Istanbul were reopened by Tuesday afternoon, Turkish Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Adil Karaismailoglu announced on Twitter, while Istanbul Gov. Ali Yerlikaya said restrictions on vehicles traveling into Istanbul were lifted.

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Authorities also cleared a runway at Istanbul Airport on Tuesday, allowing limited flights to resume. Flights were suspended Monday for safety reasons at the airport, where the roof of a cargo facility collapsed from the weight of the snow. Services at Istanbul’s second airport, Sabiha Gokcen, were also limited.

Hundreds of passengers stranded at Istanbul Airport — a key travel hub — shouted, “We need [a] hotel!” to protest their ordeal, the newspaper Cumhuriyet reported, and airport police were called in.

Huand Mahperi, who posted a video of the protest on Twitter, said the outcry came Tuesday morning after passengers were given conflicting information and were told that Turkish Airlines flights had been canceled until midnight.

In Athens, rescue crews freed up to 300 drivers trapped on a major highway that connects the Greek capital with the city’s international airport.

Drivers there had abandoned their cars and walked home. Others had trekked to a nearby train station, jumping over barriers to reach the platform after spending the night in their cars. Train service had been suspended, but a train was sent Tuesday to pick up stragglers.

The army was sent out overnight to deliver food and water to those trapped and to help free as many as possible. Officials said each trapped driver would receive 2,000 euros ($2,265) in compensation, to which the highway administration agreed.

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“It was a very difficult night, and we faced unprecedented conditions,” Civil Protection and Climate Change Minister Christos Stylianides said. “I want to again express an apology from the state for all the difficulties that the [stranded] drivers faced.”

The heavy snowfall had mostly stopped by Tuesday, but many streets in Athens remained blocked by fallen trees and several northern neighborhoods were without power. Authorities had ordered all but essential businesses shut on Tuesday, and have extended that for Wednesday in the wider Athens area and several other regions.

In the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, police said a homeless man who had been sleeping outdoors was found dead Tuesday. Local authorities said the 60-year-old had refused to relocate to a shelter.

In Turkey, authorities recovered the body of a 34-year-old who is believed to have died in heavy snowfall while trying to reach his village in Amasya province, about 200 miles northwest
of the capital, Ankara, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported.

Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said the snowfall around Istanbul would continue until Thursday and urged people to not drive unless necessary. He said many of the stranded vehicles did not have snow tires.

“Nothing is moving. The snowplows can’t even reach us,” Ahmet Odabasi, 40, one of thousands who were stranded overnight on a highway west of Istanbul, told the Associated Press.

The snowstorm, complete with thunder and lightning, hit the Athens area late Monday morning, the second year in a row that Greece has experienced a snowstorm.

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The severe weather also brought rare snowfall to vacation resorts in Turkey’s southwest, including Bodrum and Datca, with snow and slippery conditions blocking a highway linking the provinces of Mugla and Denizli. The Antalya city center, on the Mediterranean coast, saw its first snow in 29 years, the private NTV television reported.

Authorities in Istanbul suspended intercity bus services on Monday and blocked travel to the city from the northwestern Thrace region. Civil servants were given leave until Thursday, except for those in the security, health and transportation sectors. Schools across Turkey were already closed for a winter break, and universities decided to close until Jan. 31.

The mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, said the city provided shelter to about 1,500 homeless people. He said he hoped the snow would fill dams and bring relief to the parched region.

The Balkans was also gripped by freezing weather, with temperatures dropping well below freezing in Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia.

Montenegrin authorities said a record national low temperature was confirmed in the northern village of Kosanica, which plunged to minus-27.7 degrees Fahrenheit. In Bosnia, ice formed on the Miljacka River after the capital, Sarajevo, on Tuesday recorded a temperature of minus-5 degrees.

Becatoros reported from Athens. Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Derek Gatopoulos in Athens, Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki, Nadia Ahmed in London and Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia, contributed to this report.

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