Heavy snow traps 1,000 motorists in Tunisia

Tractor clears snow off main road in Siliana region

TUNIS - Heavy snow trapped around 1,000 motorists in northwest Tunisia, with heavy blizzards from Europe sweeping the Mediterranean country, the prime minister's office said Monday.
Drifts blocked roads including a major highway in the province of Jendouba on Sunday evening, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed's office said.
Many motorists stayed trapped in their cars overnight, authorities and local media said.
Rescue services managed to evacuate 80 percent of those trapped and efforts were continuing to return the others to their homes, Abdelkerim Omri, a regional infrastructure official, said Monday, quoted in local media.
The government opened 10 emergency shelters in schools and sports centres, warning the public not to travel unless absolutely necessary.
Authorities distributed food and blankets to people trapped in the "monster traffic jam" on the highway, private radio station Mosaique FM said.
Jendouba's governor, Akram Sebri, said "considerable quantities of food and liquid gas" had been stockpiled "as a precaution".
A delegation of ministers tried on Monday to reach the affected area but were unable to do so as all the roads were cut, said Infrastructure Minister Mohamed Salah Arfaoui.
The interior ministry warned Tunisians to postpone all but essential travel.
Winter snowfall is not unusual in the North African country's highlands, but Tunisia has been hit by particularly heavy blizzards from Europe in the past week.
Temperatures have plummeted to minus 5 degrees Celsius (23 Fahrenheit).
The blizzards have hit some of Tunisia's poorest regions, including the provinces of Kasserine, Kef and Siliana.
Authorities say children and frail people were evacuated to areas closer to hospitals.
A nine-year-old girl died in early January in Jendouba because of the cold, Tunisian media reported.
Forecasters say cold temperatures, high winds and heavy snowfall are set to continue at least until the middle of the week.