Serbia urges citizens to save power in big freeze

AP News
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Posted: Feb 09, 2012 12:25 PM
Serbia urges citizens to save power in big freeze

Serbia was struggling to keep its power system going, officials warned Thursday, after weeks of record low temperatures in Europe that have snarled traffic, frozen rivers and challenged officials to step up outreach to the vulnerable homeless.

The Serb state power company said its system cannot hold on for much longer and authorities urged citizens to save electricity in an appeal aired on national television.

Europe's big freeze has claimed hundreds of lives, mostly of homeless people, while tens of thousands of residents remain trapped in remote villages in Bosnia and Serbia and other hard-hit areas.

In many European capitals, authorities have set up extra shelters for the homeless to help them survive the cold snap that has seen temperatures sink as low as minus 33 Fahrenheit (minus 36 Celsius).

In Berlin, rescue vans loaded with food and clean sheets are picking up those in need and taking them to shelters.

"I witnessed a man laying on the street and people were passing by, not caring about him," said Wolfgang Gerhard, a pastor who works for the Berlin city mission and drives one of its two rescue vehicles. "And that's what moves me: that someone could die on a street and nobody calls an ambulance."

The cold and snow have blocked roads, halted shipping on rivers, and forced schools to close in many countries. In Serbia, the power company warned of restrictions unless electricity consumption is reduced. The company said it can only meet the present level of demand for a week longer, and announced that heavy industry will be switched off first.

"We have hit the limit with imports, too, because of the very difficult situation in the entire region," said Zoran Manasijevic, a senior official at the Serbian state electric company.

Manasijevic said the frigid temperatures have slowed digging for coal, which is used heavily in Serbia for power. There are also fears that ice that has formed on rivers could jeopardize power production at hydroelectric plants.

Bulgaria said it was suspending electricity exports to neighboring countries because of higher domestic consumption. Bulgaria _ which helps supply Greece, Turkey, Serbia and Macedonia _ exports more than 10 billion kilowatt hours of electricity per year.

Massive ice floes have halted shipping on parts of the mighty Danube, Europe's main commercial waterway, which winds 1,777 miles (2,860 kilometers) from Germany to the Black Sea.

Authorities in Serbia plan to use explosives to break the ice to try to prevent flooding of the kind that hit Greece and Bulgaria on Monday and Tuesday, leaving dozens of homes under water and at least eight dead.

Elsewhere in the region, rescue services have been using helicopters to reach stranded people and deliver food to snowed-in regions.

TV stations showed images of people digging tunnels to get out of their homes in the village of Rubla in eastern Romania, where dozens of communities were left without electricity or water. Some people said they were melting snow and drinking it because they couldn't get fresh water from frozen wells.

In Italy, Rome's mayor has been criticized for his response to a blizzard that paralyzed the city a week ago _ the worst snowfall the capital had seen in 26 years. So now that more snow is forecast, Gianni Alemanno has ordered Rome's schools closed on Friday and Saturday and said vehicles without chains or snow tires won't be allowed to drive in Rome on those days.

By contrast, the Netherlands hopes its cold snap will continue and even intensify.

On Wednesday, organizers ruled that the ice on the nation's rivers is too thin for the legendary 125-mile (200-kilometer) Elfstedentocht ice-skating race with 16,000 competitors to be held.

The race has only been held 15 times since the inaugural one in 1909, and even though cold temperatures have frozen many rivers now, they aren't as thick as required: six inches (15 centimeters).

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Kerstin Sopke in Berlin; Alison Mutler in Bucharest, Romania; Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria; Frances D'Emilio in Rome; and Mike Corder in the Netherlands contributed to this report.