Thousands shiver in Europe's big chill

PARIS (Reuters) - Temperatures plunged to record lows in Germany and heavy snow forced normally sunny Marseille to close its international airport as freezing winter weather gripped much of Europe on Wednesday.

People push their car during a heavy snowfall in Marseille as winter weather continues in France January 7, 2009. Heavy snowfall in Marseille forced the international airport to close and paralysed all train and bus traffic on Wednesday in the country's second-biggest city. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

Port authorities in the Dutch city of Rotterdam deployed an icebreaking ship for the first time 12 years, while in Britain forecasters issued a new severe weather warning.

In the Balkans, thousands shivered in their homes after gas supplies to southeastern Europe were cut as a result of a contract dispute between Russia and Ukraine, reminding many of the freezing winters they endured in the wars of the 1990s.

“It all reminds me of the war when we were freezing, except there is no shooting,” said Hilmo Celjo, who stood in a queue near the Bosnian capital Sarajevo to buy wood and coal.

Temperatures sank to record lows in parts of Germany overnight. A weather station in the eastern state of Saxony said the coldest spot was -27.7 degrees Celsius.

Thick snow has covered much of the country and icebreakers were at work on several waterways, including the River Elbe in eastern Germany

“I’m wearing all my warmest clothes, I’ve got two pairs of socks on. Otherwise drinking hot cocoa helps. We’ve just been sitting in McDonald’s,” Cologne resident Florian Densing told Reuters Television.

A 77-year-old woman was found dead outside in the eastern city of Weimar on Monday. She appeared to have frozen to death after she had gone missing from her old people’s home.

In France, temperatures dropped as low as -16 degrees Celsius on Wednesday in the north of country, while 40 cm of snow fell in the Marseille region in just a few hours.

Authorities blocked access to nearby motorways and 1,000 motorists were stuck in their cars awaiting rescue services.

Marseille’s main Saint Charles train station was paralyzed as signaling froze. School buses were canceled in the entire Bouches du Rhone area, where Marseille is located.

France’s Secretary of State for Transport, Dominique Bussereau, demanded an investigation into “unacceptable” chaos at Charles de Gaulle, where hundreds of flights were canceled and thousands of passengers stranded earlier in the week.

In Albania, remote areas were blocked by heavy snow and isolated villages were being supplied with food by helicopters.

A religious ceremony in which believers plunge into an icy river to retrieve a holy cross was canceled because of the cold. A hunter killed two wolves which had ventured near the northern Albanian town of Kukes.

Reporting by Catherine Hornby, Martina Fuchs, Jean-Francois Rosnoblet, Anna Mudeva, Maja Zuvela and Benet Koleka; Writing by Giles Elgood