Europe's Christmas storms kill at least 120

HOLIDAY TEMPESTS High winds cause havoc and a dozen more deaths in France, while nine tourists are among the victims of Austrian avalanche

A POWERFUL storm barrelled through Europe yesterday, leaving a trail of destruction in Spain, France, Germany, Austria and Switzerland that brought the number of deaths across the continent over the holidays to more than 120.

A massive snowstorm in western and central Austria triggered avalanches that killed at least 12 people, including nine German tourists who had hiked to mountain huts for a millennium party near the resort of Galtuer.

Two German hikers were rescued by their colleagues after the avalanche struck the Alpine area outside the western Austrian village, but one died in the evening hours. Eight others in the party, however, were killed immediately, said the mayor of Galtuer, Anton Mattle.

The deaths happened at an elevation of 3,000 metres (9,900ft) in the mountains between Ischgl and Galtuer, where 38 people were killed when massive snowslides destroyed houses in the villages of Galtuer and Valzur early this year.

Another avalanche, near the Tyrolean resort of Vent, killed two skiers and seriously injured a third.

Eight people have died in Britain this week as a result of torrential rain, hail and heavy winds. But France bore the brunt of the gales and rainstorms that have lashed Europe since Sunday. The Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement said the death toll from Sunday's storms in northern France and Monday's in the south reached at least 68.

"France has been wounded, and lots of French people are facing a cruel hardship just as they were about to celebrate the end of the year and of the millennium," President Jacques Chirac said.

At one point, 3.4 million French homes were without power. Electricite de France, the state utility faced with the worst damage to its power network since the Second World War, managed to bring down the number of households without power to 2.9 million yesterday in a hectic day of repair.

As the storms headed east, they dumped 16in of snow on the Swiss Alps and the Austrian Tyrol, triggering the killer avalanches and causing countless accidents as drivers without winter tyres slithered on the roads. In Switzerland, winds of more than 100mph and snow drifts prolonged the misery for many after Sunday's storms killed at least 13. Geneva's Cointrin airport closed for 90 minutes yesterday, rail traffic was disrupted, and entire rows of Swiss forest were ripped up.

In southern Germany, snow threatened to cause further damage from avalanches and floods, two days after hurricane winds killed at least 16 people.

High winds and driving rain lashed Italy, damaging Rome's historic Campidogli town hall. Roof tiles and parts of cornices were torn from the newly renovated building. The storms delayed flights from Italian airports and churned up the seas, cutting off islands in the south. After the huge damage to trees in Paris, authorities closed the gates to Rome's main parks.

In Spain, six people died on Monday in winds that raged up to 105mph along the north coast.

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