White-out paralyses Spain in worst winter for 20 years

Spain was paralysed by snowstorms yesterday, with roads out of Madrid blocked in all directions. Motorists were urged not to venture out at all, or if they had to, only with snow-chains. Siberian conditions in the harshest winter for 20 years have claimed 18 lives in three days.

Forecasters predicted more snow today, when millions of Spaniards will be returning from Christmas and New Year holidays.

More than 500 towns and villages in the northern half of the country were unreachable by road and without telephone and electricity yesterday, and the rail network was virtually at a standstill. Trains between Madrid and Paris via the Basque border town of Irun were suspended.

In the south, the worst rainstorms for a century have inundated Andalusia, causing rivers to burst their banks and destroying most of the strawberry crop. In search of a precedent, January 1561 is being cited, when the port of Malaga was surrounded by water and had to be supplied by boat.

In a hillside cemetery near Motril in Granada, human remains in 120 graves had to be carried to safety when landslips threatened to dislodge tombstones and push out the coffins.

In France, the return home at the end of the Christmas and New Year break, normally one of the busiest weekends of the winter, was reduced to chaotic uncertainty as major routes in the southern, central and eastern parts of the country were blocked by snow and ice. Some ski resorts organised convoys, led by snow-ploughs, to help holidaymakers depart.

The state railway company, SNCF, came in for severe criticism from passengers marooned, in some cases overnight, when ice and snow immobilised dozens of the country's state-of-the-art high-speed trains (TGVs). More than 30,000 people had their journeys disrupted in south-eastern France at the start of the weekend, with 10,000 having to spend the night on trains or in stations.

Passengers emerged gingerly from trains stranded at snow-bound country stations in scenes reminiscent of Dr Zhivago. Some trains from the south- east arrived in Paris after epic 25-hour journeys, five times longer than usual.

Ice trapped all Bordeaux's high-speed trains in the city's main station, though by yesterday a limited service had been laid on using diesel trains. But angry passengers were asking why SNCF had not warned of difficulties, why there was so little information for stranded passengers and those meeting them, and why the network had seized up so disastrously.

Louis Gallois, head of SNCF, said station officials had not known where the trains were and that the weather - extreme cold and high humidity which had iced-up the cables - was exceptional. In a somewhat half-hearted apology, he added: "We are not perfect - no one is."