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Greek Army Helps Remove Stuck Vehicles, PM Apologizes for Snowstorm Ordeal

ATHENS — Greek army and municipal crews removed hundreds of vehicles Wednesday that had been stranded in snow for three days along a road linking Athens to its international airport, as authorities struggled to clear blocked thoroughfares and restore power to blacked out parts of the capital.

Heavy snowfall has caused major disruptions this week in Greece, halting flights, blocking highways and causing power outages.

Snow blanketed Athens and much of the country on Monday, leaving thousands of drivers trapped on major roads in the Greek capital for hours, with many forced to spend the night in their cars.

Many city streets were still impassable on Wednesday. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis offered a “personal and sincere apology” to the stranded drivers during a Cabinet meeting, but he blamed the road’s private operators for mishandling the reaction to the storm.

Read more: Greek Schools to Remain Closed on Thursday

It took three days to remove thousands of cars and trucks stuck on the highway, with many drivers either abandoning their vehicles and walking away while others spent a night huddled down, the Army bringing blankets, food and water until they could be rescued.

The ministries of Civil Protection and Citizens’ Protection and the Traffic Police said there were two teleconferences with Attiko Odos officials who briefed them on a plan that wasn’t put into effect as the snow piled up.

Mitsotakis demanded the company pay 2,000 euros ($2259) to those stranded and Civil Protection Ministry Christos Stylianides said that “the road management company has to answer for the situation that has been created.”

That led to the company’s CEO Bill M. Halkias stepping down and taking blame. “As the head of an entire mechanism, I feel the need to facilitate the company and to submit my resignation as board member and as CEO,” Halkias was quoted in a statement as the reason.

The board of the company appointed operations manager Aristophanis Papadimitriou to assume responsibilities from Halkias until the election of a new CEO, said Kathimerini in a report on the fallout.

Army crews try to remove vehicles stranded in snow for three days along Attiki Odos tollway, linking Athens to the capital’s international airport, Greece, Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Civil Protection Ministry sources not named told the paper that during the teleconferences that the highway officials laid out a plan to keep it open and that some said trucks should be banned – which the government ruled out because they were needed to keep delivering supplies and food.

Ministry officials said that Attiki Odos did not ensure that the traffic on the highway was stopped in time as soon as the problems with the first trucks began in the Kantza area. Instead, cars continued to access Attiki Odos.

Civil Protection officials said was that even when the problem first appeared, the officials of Attiki Odos did not immediately divert the traffic, before cars were trapped in the snow.

Greek soldiers try to free a vehicle stuck in snow on the Attiki Odos motorway, following Tuesday’s heavy snowfall, in Athens, on Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

“If they did the above or even one of them the problem would have been prevented,” an official told the newspaper, noting that the number of vehicles that were trapped could reach 50,000.

Stylianides though admitted that part of the blame falls on the state and apologized for the shortcomings but no government official has been reprimanded or removed and no word from Mitsotakis about the reaction.

“There’s no doubt this was a very difficult phenomenon, with a snowstorm that rarely happens. But, there’s also no doubt that there were deficiencies at all levels of implementation; that’s why I emphasized from the start that the authorities must apologize,” Stylianides told SKAI TV.

Stranded vehicles are covered with snow for three days along Attiki Odos tollway, linking Athens to the capital’s international airport, Greece, Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022.  (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

The storm though was predicted for days, giving the state ample time to ramp up a response and there was no word on whether a new agency set up to deal with disasters after the summer wildfires was called into action.

“The intensity of the phenomena exceeded all forecasts, but this is not an excuse,” he said, adding that the situation in Attiki Odos, with well over 1,000 cars trapped in the snow, wouldn’t have been so bad if the plan had been put in place. There was no word on why it wasn’t.

“Attiki Odos told us that they had sufficient equipment,” Stylianides said, referring to meetings ahead of the storm. “Unfortunately, it seems it couldn’t implement its own plans. “There was no coordination with traffic police, like it happened on the (Athens-Thessaloniki) highway,” he added.

The company said it had 35 plows for the road’s 70 kilometers (43.5 miles) but it wasn’t said how they were used as trucks jack-knifed and added to blockades making passage impossible as snow piled up.

In Istanbul road and air traffic returns to normal

In Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, road and air traffic was returning to normal, but snow still covered large swathes of the metropolis of 16 million people.

Countless motorists were also stranded for several hours on highways around Istanbul while flights in and out of Istanbul Airport, one of Europe’s busiest travel hubs, were suspended. The airport said Wednesday that it was slowly returning to its normal operations with a total of 681 landings and takeoffs scheduled.

Planes are parked at snow-covered Istanbul international airport in Istanbul, Turkey, Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

The snowstorm however, rekindled debate over the location of Istanbul Airport — one of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s megaprojects – that replaced Ataturk International Airport as the city’s main airport when it opened in 2019.

Critics say the new airport’s location near Black Sea is not suitable for an airfield. It also has no metro service, making access difficult, and no nearby hotels to accommodate stranded passengers. On Tuesday, hundreds of stranded passengers staged a protest at the airport chanting: “We need (a) hotel!”

The snowstorm led to recriminations, with members of Erdogan’s government and the opposition-run municipality trading blame for the chaos while praising their own disaster management efforts.

Istanbul’s Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, a popular opposition politician touted as a possible rival to Erdogan in elections slated for 2023, offered an apology on Wednesday to the thousands of people for their “suffering” on Istanbul’s roads. He rejected criticism, however, for meeting the British ambassador for dinner during the crisis.

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