Fierce winter storm batters Middle East, 8 dead

From floods to snowfall to 45-mile-an-hour winds, Middle East residents are suffering in the fiercest January storm in 30 years.

AMMAN, Jordan  — The fiercest winter storm to hit the Mideast in years brought a rare foot of snow to Jordan Wednesday, caused fatal accidents in Lebanon and the West Bank, and disrupted traffic on the Suez Canal in Egypt. At least eight people died across the region.

In Lebanon, the Red Cross said storm-related accidents killed six people over the past two days. Several drowned after slipping into rivers from flooded roads, one person froze to death, and another died after his car went off a slippery road, according to George Kettaneh, operations director for the Lebanese Red Cross.

In the West Bank town of Ramallah, a Palestinian official said two West Bank women drowned after their car was caught in a flash flood Tuesday. Nablus Deputy Gov. Annan Atirah said the women abandoned their vehicle after it got stuck on a flooded road and their bodies were apparently swept away by surging waters. Their driver was hospitalized in critical condition.

In the Gaza Strip, civil defense spokesman Mohammed al-Haj Yousef said storms cut electricity to thousands of Palestinian homes and rescuers were sent to evacuate dozens of people. Parts of Israel were bracing for snow a day after the military was forced to send helicopters and rubber dinghies to rescue residents stranded by floodwaters.

VIDEO: At least 8 dead as winter storm hits Middle East

The unusual weather over the past few days hit vulnerable Syrian refugees living in tent camps very hard, particularly some 50,000 sheltering in the Zaatari camp in Jordan's northern desert. Torrential rains over four days have flooded some 200 tents and forced women and infants to evacuate in whipping wind, lashing rain and temperatures that dipped below freezing at night.

"It's been freezing cold and constant rain for the past four days," lamented Ahmad Tobara, 44, who evacuated his tent when its shafts submerged in flood water in Zaatari. A camp spokesman said that by Wednesday, some 1,500 refugees had been displaced within the camp and were now living in mobile homes normally used for schools.

Winter storm hits Middle East: Palestinians cross a road flooded and swept away Wednesday by heavy rains in the northern West Bank village of Kabatyeh. IMAGEAP Photo: Mohammed Ballas

Weather officials said wind speeds exceeded 45 miles per hour and the rain left two feet of water on the streets.

The storm dumped at least a foot of snow on many parts of Jordan and was accompanied by lashing wind, lightning and thunder. It shut schools, stranded motorists and delayed international flights, Jordanian weatherman Mohammed Samawi said. The unusually heavy snowfall blocked streets in the capital Amman and isolated remote villages, prompting warnings from authorities for people to stay home as snowplows tried to reopen clogged roads. It forced at least 400 families to evacuate their homes and move to government shelters overnight.

Samawi called it the "fiercest storm to hit the Mideast in the month of January in at least 30 years."

The snowstorm followed four days of torrential rain, which caused flooding in many areas across the country.

In Lebanon, several days of winds and heavy rain along the coast and record snow in the mountains caused power outages across the country, blocked traffic and shut down mountain passes. Later Wednesday, snow is forecast at altitudes higher than 200 yards (meters), while rain that has already flooded suburbs of the capital, Beirut, should continue.

In Egypt, rare downpours, strong winds and low visibility disrupted Suez Canal operations over the past three days and also led to the closure of several ports. The number of ships moving through the Suez Canal had fallen by half because of poor visibility, the official MENA news agency reported. A canal official said that by Wednesday, operations had returned to normal. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.

MENA also reported that ports in Dakhila and the northern Mediterranean city of Alexandria were shut down, while cities in the Nile Delta suffered power outages and fishing stopped in cities like Damietta, northeast of Cairo.

MENA also reported 10 fishermen went missing after their boat capsized near Marsa Matrouh on the Mediterranean.

Snow was piling up in and around the Syrian capital of Damascus, where a civil war is raging. Officials said many villages in central Homs province and along the southern border with Israel have been cut off after heavy snowfall. Torrential rains are expected over the next three days and temperatures are expected to remain around freezing. Some 2.5 million people within Syria have been displaced in fighting that has stretched on for nearly two years now.

Surk reported from Beirut. Associated Press reporters Mohammad Hannon contributed from Zaatari, Jordan, Amy Teibel from Jerusalem and Albert Aji from Damascus, Syria.

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