Deadly freeze stretches gas supplies to eastern Europe

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The exceptionally cold weather in eastern and central Europe has claimed scores of lives, forcing factories to suspend work and stretching some countries' gas supplies to breaking point.

Parts of Ukraine, Romania, the Baltic republics and the Czech Republic were reporting temperatures of minus 30C as the biting cold that held Russia in its grip for so long gradually moved westwards and towards the south of Europe.

Unusually, temperatures below minus 30C have been recorded in the mountains of northern Italy, and in Athens a fine patina of snow is covering the Acropolis. In the former Soviet republic of Georgia, where the winters are usually mild, the government struggled to keep people warm.

In Tblisi yesterday, the misery caused by temperatures of minus 10C was compounded by a mysterious explosion a few days ago that ripped through the main pipeline supplying Georgia with Russian gas.

Mikhail Saakashvili, Georgia's President, is adamant the Russians deliberately blew up the pipeline for a political motive, an allegation Moscow has dismissed as ludicrous.

Meanwhile, in Ukraine, 80 people are thought to have suffered cold-induced deaths in the past few days, more than Russia where the chill killed about 50. The temperature in Russia was rising - it was minus 11C in Moscow yesterday and locals said things seemed to have got back to normal. But in Kiev, it was minus 14C and the government warned it was considering shutting down industrial production.

Ukraine has used record amounts of gas in the past few days prompting Russia, its chief supplier, to complain that gas destined for European customers has been consumed by Ukraine.

Poland has also been affected. At least 27 people have died since last Friday. In Germany, eight people succumbed to the freezing weather, while in Romania, 16 people are reported to have died and some residents of the capital, Bucharest, were without heating. In the Czech Republic there have been at least 10 deaths.