Mideast digs out from under rare snowstorm; one killed

Monday, February 16, 2004

AMMAN, Jordan -- A rare storm dumped more than two feet of snow on parts of the Middle East, breaking power lines in Lebanon, collapsing a wall at a holy site in Israel and delaying talks between Israelis and Palestinians. At least one person was killed.

In the capital of this desert kingdom, snowmen lined the streets of Amman on Sunday, and children sledded on plastic tubs and bowls. Parts of Jordan received as much as 2 1/2 feet of snow, and more was reported in outlying Lebanese and Syrian villages.

The wintery blanket stranded motorists and closed schools and businesses Sunday, the first day of the work week for much of the region.

In Lebanon, a man was electrocuted Saturday when strong winds snapped a power line in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanese media reported. About 10,000 Lebanese security, army and civil defense personnel were deployed and some 400 stranded motorists were rescued.

Meanwhile, in Syria, the blizzard forced the cancelation of an annual protest against Israel's 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights.

Still, people managed to relish the unusual weather. In Amman, men wearing long robes and women in traditional black dresses and Islamic head scarves played in the powder.

"It's fun, but I keep slipping because I trample on my robe," said Mohammad Abu-Roman, 19, his robe soaked up to his waist.

The Middle East is accustomed to mild winters, although big storms occasionally batter the region. Last February, Jordan received between one and three feet of snow in what was described as the kingdom's worst snowstorm since 1950.

Talks postponed

Icy roads prompted Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to postpone a round of talks scheduled for Sunday, aimed at preparing a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart Ahmed Queria. No new date was set. Palestinian ministries were shut Sunday.

The storm also caused the Jordanian parliament to postpone a session to debate the 2004 budget.

In Jerusalem, heavy snow caused an old wall to collapse on the ramp leading to the Temple Mount, a site holy to Jews and Muslims. No one was injured. Prayers in the adjacent women's section at the Western Wall were canceled.

"It's weather reports on the news for a change," said Samiha Baz, enjoying a rare feeling of normalcy amid violence in neighboring Israel, the Palestinian territories and Iraq.

She helped her two children build a snowman in an Amman residential neighborhood, where pine and palm branches broke off under the weight of snow. Plows worked to clear the capital's hilly streets.

The storm, packing winds of up to 50 mph, was expected to let up by today.

Amid the snowfall, about 400 Syrians in buses and cars were foiled in staging the annual Golan Heights protest. They tried to reach the mountainous village of Ein al-Tineh on Syria's side of the Golan but were forced to turn back.

Syrians traditionally stand on the edge of the so-called Shouting Valley, yelling through megaphones and singing national songs to Arabs living on the other side of the fence in the Israeli-occupied Golan.

Israel captured the Golan, located 40 miles southwest of Damascus, in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. In 1981, Israel annexed the plateau in a move that is not recognized internationally.

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