Late-winter snowstorm batters northwest Europe

A heavy late-winter snowstorm hit northwestern Europe on Tuesday, paralyzing transport, knocking out power to thousands and leaving hundreds stranded in their cars.

France was affected most badly by the unseasonable weather, but Britain, Germany, Belgium and The Netherlands also reported major disruptions.

Nearly a third of France’s regions were on alert and the government activated a ministerial crisis group to deal with mounting disruptions.

Weather service Meteo France described the snowfall — coming only eight days before the official start of spring — as “remarkable for the season” and warned that alerts would probably remain in place until at least Wednesday.

More than 2,000 people were stranded in their cars overnight as heavy snow paralysed roads in Normandy and Brittany, with many spending the night in emergency shelters.

“There are cars in front, there are cars behind. We’re in a film, it’s like the end of the world,” trapped driver Michel told France Bleu radio from the Manche region.

At least 66,000 homes in Normandy and Brittany were without power, following snowfalls of 20 to 60 centimetres (eight to 24 inches).

The snow caused major transport disruptions as it moved into Paris, with authorities urging the seven million commuters who use public transport every day to stay home.

The city’s two main airports, Charles de Gaulle and Orly, said they had cancelled up to a quarter of flights.

A traffic accident near Lille injured 14 people and a 58-year-old homeless man was found dead, presumably from the cold, outside a building in the Breton town of Saint-Brieuc.

Hundreds were also stuck in their cars overnight in Britain and Eurostar train services to the continent were disrupted.

Drivers including former Eurovision song contest winner Cheryl Baker were trapped for more than 10 hours as ice, snow and freezing winds descended on southeastern England.

Police, rescue services, snow ploughs and gritting lorries battled to help the motorists in temperatures as low as -3 degrees Celsius (26 degrees Farenheit), with some areas under 10 centimetres (four inches) of snow.

Baker, formerly of the band Bucks Fizz which won the 1981 Eurovision with the song “Making Your Mind Up”, was among those caught up in the chaos as she tried to reach Brighton to pick up her children.

“We (took) 10 hours to do a one-hour journey,” she told ITV.

“The traffic and the weather have just been atrocious and none of the roads had been gritted. There are snow ploughs coming out now — it is like after the horse has bolted.”

Eurostar also “strongly advised” passengers not to travel, saying that services of the train that runs under the English Channel were disrupted “due to extreme weather conditions.”

Heavy snow in several parts of Germany caused travel disruption, with 161 flights cancelled at Frankfurt airport, Europe’s third busiest.

Public transport in Berlin was affected with several regional trains cancelled or severely delayed.

There were also a spate of crashes on icy German roads with several people seriously hurt and one death, according to police.

In Belgium, the snowstorms caused massive traffic disruptions, with vehicles backed up on 1,600 kilometres (1,000 miles) of freeways due to snowdrifts and ice.

Buses and trains were cancelled or delayed in Brussels and other towns and the high-speed Thalys service linking Paris and Brussels was suspended.

Long traffic jams because of snow and ice also snaked along motorways in the southern Netherlands, hampering travel to and from Belgium after an unseasonal fall of more than 10 centimetres (four inches) of snow overnight.

Forecasters predicted that cold weather records were set to be broken again after Monday, the coldest March 11 in the southern Netherlands since 1928, Dutch media reported. (AFP)