Winter storm pummels Mideast, adding to refugee misery

A Syrian refugee works outside his tent during a winter storm in Zahle town, in the Bekaa Valley Dec 11, 2013. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
A Syrian refugee works outside his tent during a winter storm in Zahle town, in the Bekaa Valley Dec 11, 2013. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIRUT (AFP) - A bruising winter storm brought severe weather to the Middle East on Thursday, forcing the closure of roads and schools and blanketing already miserable Syrian refugee camps with snow and ice.

In tent camps across Lebanon, thousands of Syrian refugees huddled on muddy floors under plastic sheeting that provided little relief from the icy winds.

"I hate the cold," said 13-year-old Sakr in a camp in Saadnayel, in the mountains outside Beirut, where children, many without hats or gloves, sneezed and rubbed their hands together.

"When it snows, the meltwater becomes mud inside the tents, which collapse on our heads because of the weight of snow."

More than 800,000 Syrians have fled to Lebanon since the civil war erupted nearly three years ago, many living in tents and unfinished buildings.

Millions have also been displaced inside Syria, which was also battered by the storm.

Elsewhere in the region the weather sent temperatures plunging, and brought heavy snow at higher elevations, including in Jerusalem, where schools were closed and conditions were expected to worsen later in the day.

The Israeli Meteorological Service forecast a maximum temperature of 3 deg C for Jerusalem, falling to below freezing at night.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cancelled a planned reception for the foreign press due to "inclement weather".

In the occupied West Bank, most schools were closed but roads were generally passable and no serious accidents were reported.

In the Gaza Strip, which has been in the grip of a fuel crisis that has affected hospitals, sanitation services and sewerage, torrential rains flooded the streets and forced the closure of schools and banks.

Most residents had to rely on generators for heat as the fuel crisis has led to regular power outages of up to 16 hours a day.

In Jordan, the government closed ministries and other offices on account of heavy snow and rain and urged residents to stay indoors. Banks and schools were also closed.

In Egypt's Sinai, heavy rains caused power cuts and two police were injured when their car overturned on a muddy road.

The arid coastal Levant enjoys mild weather for much of the year, but winter often brings heavy rains that snarl traffic in cities ill-adapted to it.