Blizzards hit Serbia, power grids strained

BELGRADE, Jan 24, 2000 -- (Reuters) Blizzards swept across Serbia on Sunday, straining the country's bomb-damaged electricity grid and plunging some Belgrade suburbs into cold and darkness.

Heavy snowfall snarled roads, including the main highway linking Serbia with Hungary and Macedonia, and forced airports in Tivat and Podgorica, Montenegro, to close, authorities said.

The official Tanjug news agency reported navigation on the Danube river had been halted by high winds and snow.

Power company Elektroprivreda Srbije (EPS) appealed to the public to conserve electricity to prevent the grid from collapsing and urged people to shift to other sources of heat.

Nearly a third of Serbia's grid was damaged in three-months of NATO bombing last year, designed to force Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to pull his forces out of Kosovo.

In Belgrade, the temperature sank to minus five degrees Celsius in the early afternoon and weather experts forecast it would drop to minus 22 degrees between Tuesday and Friday.

"This is a moderate forecast. If the skies clear, it could get even colder," a Weather Service official told Reuters.

Residents in some Belgrade suburbs said their homes were enveloped by cold and darkness. In other areas, where gas is the prime source of community heating, lightbulbs blinked.

EPS said daily electricity consumption had jumped to 131.2 million kiloWatt-hours. Media reported this week that the utility was producing 117 million kWh a day and relying on neighboring grids for the rest.

Yugoslavia, subject to an oil embargo which bans imports of crude and oil products, has had regular heating problems since November when the first snow fell.

Belgrade had hoped that Russia would provide enough natural gas to heat it through the winter, but Russian gas monopoly Gazprom has delivered barely half of Serbia's needs.

City authorities have urged local gas distributor Energogas to keep the heating on 24 hours a day. The central, community heating is normally delivered between 6:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m.

The European Union has sent heating oil to the Serbian opposition-held towns of Pirot and Nis. On Monday, the 15-nation bloc was expected to add other towns to the list of those receiving fuel under its Energy for Democracy scheme.

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