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Blizzards lash Turkey

20 missing as ship sinks

A man shovels snow in front of his kiosk nrear the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet) during a snow storm in Istanbul yesterday.

A man shovels snow in front of his kiosk nrear the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet) during a snow storm in Istanbul yesterday.

Blizzards cut off thousands of Turkish villages, blocked roads and kept air and sea routes closed yesterday, while rescue workers battled high seas in the search for 20 men lost when their ship sank off Istanbul.

Neighbouring Greece and Bulgaria were also battered by storms that disrupted air, sea and road transport.

Athens ground to a halt amid one of its worst snowstorms in decades. Planes were grounded, ports and highways closed and thousands were stranded at bus stops and train stations as up to 50 cm of snow blanketed the capital.

Guards turned away tourists at the Acropolis, symbol of the city, saying it was too dangerous to climb the slippery marble stairway to the temple site.

Strong winds forced Bulgaria to close down its largest and second largest Black Sea ports of Varna and Bourgas, port authorities said. Bourgas airport was also closed.

In the western Turkish city of Bursa, where 44 cm of snow fell, five people died after breathing fumes from faulty stoves as they tried to keep warm.

Since blizzards began on Thursday, two ships have sunk and two have grounded in storms near Istanbul, Turkey's sprawling commercial centre. Flights at the city's airport were suspended.

Maritime officials said rescue workers were searching for 20 people missing after their Cambodian-flagged ship Hera, loaded with coal, sank in the Black Sea 14 kilometres from the Bosphorus strait around midday.

"We have sent out two boats. We know there were 21 crew, but we have only spotted one member so far," an official said. The crew numbered two Ukrainians and 19 Bulgarians.

Istanbul's Bosphorus and the Dardanelles straits, the only outlet to the world's oceans for Black Sea states, remained closed after a decision to shut them on Thursday as visibility dropped to near zero. A total of 42 tankers were awaiting transit at the entrances to the two straits. Schools in Istanbul were shut on Thursday and yesterday. Meteorology officials said wind speeds reached 90 kph.

Life in the city ground to a halt three weeks ago in similar weather.

In Athens, Foreign Minister George Papandreou called off a ceremony where he was scheduled to formally resign to lead the governing socialists in a campaign for the March 7 general election. "There are problems with people reaching the ministry," a Foreign Ministry official told Reuters.

Across Turkey, some 2,700 villages were cut off by the heavy snow, Anatolian news agency said.

The 16-member crew of a North Korean-flagged vessel was stranded as it grounded at the northern entrance of the Istanbul strait but did not seek help from emergency services. Rescue workers have brought to safety the 11 crew of a Russian-flagged dry cargo vessel which grounded in the same area.

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