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Severe Snowstorm in Greece Grows Into Political Crisis

A Greek Army bulldozer plows snow next to abandoned vehicles following heavy snowfall, in Athens, Greece, Jan. 25, 2022.
A Greek Army bulldozer plows snow next to abandoned vehicles following heavy snowfall, in Athens, Greece, Jan. 25, 2022.

A severe snowstorm battering Greece is growing into a political crisis with the main opposition leader calling on Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to resign and hold snap elections. The call comes after thousands of people were left trapped along a main highway near the capital, Athens. The Greek government’s response to the storm is being called a “fiasco.”

Heart-wrenching appeals, like one by Christos, a 74-year-old motorist trapped in his car for 22 hours, have triggered public and political fury.

“Please, please, please,” Christos cried to a television presenter. “Please, show us some mercy. Tell them to open the road… to help us. We are freezing…. We have been left without any gasoline, nothing to tide us over,” Christos pleaded.

Rescue crews working through the night have so far managed to evacuate some 3,500 drivers on a key motorway that homeland security forces promised ahead of the storm to keep open, but didn’t, leaving thousands of motorists stranded in snow, with rescue crews blocked from accessing those in distress.

Despite efforts, about 1,200 others remain stuck on the Attiki Odos motorway that circles the Greek capital, and thousands more on other roads and highways snaking through Athens, which is home to half the country’s population of 11 million.

Fifteen passengers were injured when a rail transport vehicle tried to pull a train carrying more than 200 passengers in heavy snow on Monday. Much of the capital has also been left without heat and electricity, sending hundreds of families streaming to their cars to keep warm as temperatures dip below freezing.

On Tuesday, Christos Stylianides, Greece’s climate crisis and civil protection minister, apologized, but he said it was not the time to enter into a blame game.

We are focused on managing this unprecedented crisis, he told a news briefing after back-to-back crisis talks with Mitsotakis.

He reiterated the government’s apology for its failed response and for “troubling” thousands of people by extending a shutdown of schools, public services and banks for an extra day in three regions in Greece, including the capital.

But the public’s fury remains so intense, amid the failings of the system, that a public prosecutor has ordered an urgent investigation into why the nation’s most important motorway was left unattended for so long.

Alexis Tsipras, the main opposition leader, wants the government to resign and hold elections immediately. He said in a statement issued Tuesday that he laid blame squarely on Mitsotakis, and that the country would be better off "without him" and a government unable to manage a snowstorm.

Snowfall is common in the Greek highlands, but extremely rare in the center of Athens and the country’s islands.

Mitsotakis has refrained from making any comment, or even appearing at any distressed location. Aides to the prime minister tell VOA, though, that he is pushing to compensate trapped motorists with at least 2,000 euros each, or just more than $2,250.