Rivers turn to ice in Europe's big chill

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Europe's great rivers are freezing as an icy winter takes its toll across the Continent.

Since Monday, the Elbe has been closed to inland navigation from Hamburg almost to the Czech border. Ice is also building in the channel between the North and Baltic seas, closing Schleswig and other smaller harbours.

The Danube remained closed to all shipping traffic from Germany through Austria to Slovakia, and barges were stuck throughout the Benelux countries and Germany, with operators in northern Germany waiting for ice breakers to free their boats.

Barge traffic was halted in much of eastern France after parts of the Loire and key canals were sealed with four inches of ice. While the Rhine is still navigable from Rotterdam to Basel, the freeze has hit tributaries and nearby canals. In Britain, for the first time since the end of the Second World War, the Thames froze at Marlow in Buckinghamshire, 25 miles west of London. Bookmaker William Hill said people were placing bets on whether the river would freeze over in central London.

Temperatures in northern continental Europe and eastern England were around -10C yesterday. It was warmer in Greenland than it was in much of Europe. In the capital, Nuuk, it was 1C; a day earlier, it was a spring- like 13C.

The freeze has taken a grim toll, claiming the lives of 200 people, many of them homeless or old. In Romania, a Bucharest morgue was overflowing after more than 50 people died of cold. The director said cemeteries were refusing to bury the dead because the ground remained frozen. Most of those who had frozen to death were ill, poor and malnourished, with no identity papers. In Germany, Bonn's gravediggers complained that they were having to use pneumatic drills to get through up to 50 centimetres of frozen earth. To make matters worse, many cemeteries had more burials than usual to cope with because of a post-holiday backlog.

Leipzig's gravediggers used a more traditional method, applying a layer of glowing coals for six to eight hours to thaw the frozen earth underneath.

In separate skiing accidents in Switzerland on Thursday, a Dutchman and a German lost their lives, Swiss officials said. The country is suffering the coldest temperatures since 1987 and is set to get a fresh layer of snow today.

In Poland, a nearly two-week spell of Arctic cold has killed at least 40 people, often either elderly and living alone or those who froze to death while drunk.

In the Russian Caucasus emergency workers were battling strong winds, blizzards and fog to clear snowdrifts that have blocked travellers in a mountain road tunnel for a week. The Emergencies Ministry in Moscow said some 30 or so drivers remained blocked in the Roksky tunnel, which links Russia with Georgia through the 10,000-foot Roksky Pass and which has been cut off by avalanches.

In the Netherlands, even the penguins were freezing. An Amsterdam zoo moved its younger blackfoot penguins - a species native to coastal South Africa - out of the -5C outdoors and into a cooler where the temperature can be kept at a constant 5C.

Oyster farmers, meanwhile, are worried their produce could freeze to death on the way to market.

And, in Belgium, a lorry driver trapped by some of the coldest weather in years ended up making a vast chocolate fondue after trying to unfreeze his fuel tank with a blow torch. Police said the diesel fuel caught fire, melting tonnes of Belgian chocolates which the lorry was carrying.

There are some compensations. In the Netherlands, the big chill was being cheered for producing ice thick enough to run a cross-country skating race that has not been held since 1986. About 1 million shivering spectators were expected to line canal and river banks for today's Eleven Towns tour, which starts and finishes in the northern Dutch city of Leeuwarden.