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Europe still in grip of Big Freeze

The big freeze has continued to overwhelm parts of eastern Europe as record snowfall and harsh temperatures brought entire regions to a standstill.

Serbia and Bosnia shut schools and struggled to continue public transport and rubbish collections, as authorities focused on trying to help thousands trapped in remote mountain villages.

People across the continent were continuing to dig out from heavy snow after a week of bitter cold in which the death toll, mostly homeless people, continues to rise into the hundreds. Temperatures have fallen as low as minus 36 Celsius in Ukraine, the hardest-hit country.

The big freeze has caused traffic chaos throughout Europe, blocking roads, and shutting down airports.

But it has also offered opportunities for snowy fun: Ice skaters in the Netherlands were hopeful they could stage a race that has not happened in more than a decade; children in Rome and along the usually temperate Adriatic coast in Croatia frolicked in rare snow; and Bosnians in the capital, Sarajevo, spontaneously organised a winter "Olympics" in which they boarded down main streets and leapt out of windows into deep snow banks.

The Serbian government has declared an emergency situation with 70,000 people cut off by the heavy snow. It included shutting down all primary schools and high schools for a week to save power and keep children safe. Thrilled, hundreds of youngsters filled the parks in the capital, Belgrade.

In Bosnia, hundreds of villages are cut off behind snowed-in roads and avalanches and rescuers were using helicopters to evacuate the sick and deliver food. Authorities said they have had no contact for 72 hours with about 120 people in the central village of Zijemlja, where residents have no electricity or phone lines. In the capital Sarajevo thousands of people trudged to work, with only occasional buses braving the deep snow. Volunteers, meanwhile, cleared tram lines.

In Poland nine more people died of hypothermia. Two elderly people were found frozen in Serbia and Bosnia, and Croatia reported four snow-related deaths.

Ukraine said the country's death toll now stands at 131, including many homeless people. About 2,300 other Ukrainians have sought treatment for frostbite or hypothermia.

In the Netherlands, however, the deep freeze means the country's almost mythical "Eleven Cities Tour" ice skating marathon could be staged later this month for the first time in 15 years. The race, held along a 125-mile network of canals connecting 11 towns and cities in Friesland province, would cause a national frenzy, drawing thousands of participants and more than a million spectators. It was last held in 1997.

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