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Winter storm strands thousands of motorists overnight in eastern Europe

Szilard Gergely / AFP - Getty Images

A man walks past a damaged truck at the site of an accident on the E71 motorway, near the Croatian, Slovenian and Hungarian borders on Friday, a day after a heavy snow storm hit the area.

BUDAPEST - Hungary deployed tanks to reach thousands of motorists trapped in heavy snow on Friday as a sudden cold snap and high winds struck parts of the Balkans, Slovakia and Poland, leaving at least two people dead.

Snow stranded people in cars, buses and trains through the night and conspired with strong winds to cut off dozens of towns and villages in Hungary.

"The situation is most critical on the M1 motorway (linking Budapest and Vienna) where hundreds of cars are stranded in the snow, most of them for 18-20 hours now," said Marton Hajdu, spokesman for the National Directorate for Disaster Management.

Reuters photographer traveling with a rescue convoy said high winds had caused snowdrifts on the motorway up to three feet high.

People took to Facebook to appeal for help.

"At the Gyorszentivan exit on the motorway I have friends stranded since yesterday evening," wrote Ibolya Csukovics. "Can anyone help? They've run out of food and drink."

The government said it had sent in tanks and other military vehicles with caterpillar tracks.

The weekend's premier league and second tier football fixtures were canceled, with night-time temperatures expected to drop as low as 5 degrees Fahrenheit).

After a relatively mild winter for much of the region, almost 200,000 people in Hungary, Bulgaria and Slovakia were left shivering without electricity on Friday. Heavy rain hit parts of Serbia and Bosnia.

In Bulgaria, one woman was killed when scaffolding collapsed in high winds in the central town of Gabrovo, and a school was evacuated in the southern town of Krichim when wind tore off the roof.

To the south, in Kosovo, a 10-year-old girl drowned when a river burst its banks in heavy rain in the northern town of Skenderaj. Dozens of homes were flooded in the west of the country, a Reuters reporter said.

"The situation is alarming," Klina municipality spokeswoman Samije Gjergjaj told Reuters. She said some 300 people were stranded by floodwater.

"There's just one small boat evacuating these people," said Gjergjaj. "We're waiting for the state emergency services to help out."

Heavy snow also paralyzed parts of southeastern Poland, where police banned heavy lorries from entering the city of Rzeszow for fear they would get stuck.

In eastern Slovakia, snow stranded some 40 lorries on a highway in the High Tatras region. The army deployed hundreds of soldiers to help out and authorities appealed to people to avoid venturing out by car. 

Alexey Gromov / AFP - Getty Images

People struggle against wind and drifting snow in the Belarus capital, Minsk, on Friday.