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Thursday, 19 March, 1998, 13:56 GMT
Snow follows sand in Middle East
The blizzard disrupted transport
Sandstorms over the weekend and on Wednesday freak snowfalls; experts say the Middle East has been hit by a weather phenomenon known as the khamsin. This seasonal pattern usually brings hot winds and sandstorms to North Africa followed by freezing temperatures.

The conditions are highly unusual
On Wednesday, a rare blizzard left parts of Israel and Jordan coated with a thick blanket of snow, which brought them to a standstill. Jerusalem was particularly heavily affected.

Public transport was left paralysed and offices and schools closed. The Israeli authorities asked people not to go outside unless absolutely necessary and a cabinet meeting on a proposal to withdraw from southern Lebanon had to be cancelled.

People were advised to stay indoors
Residents of Jerusalem receive a sprinkling of snow every year, but it usually melts rapidly. This time they took advantage of the blizzard, with Palestinian and Israeli children joining forces to build snowmen and hurl snowballs at passing cars. The people of Amman also took part in snow games.

The blizzard follows severe weather in Israel's southern neighbour, Egypt, which was badly hit by sandstorms earlier in the week. Both have been attributed to the Khamasin phenomenon, which usually occurs at this time of year, but this year, the effect has been particularly violent.

Sandstorms earlier in the week created an eerie yellow light
Sandstorms reached as far as Lebanon on the east Mediterranean coast, which is normally spared. They even toppled an old, 30-metre high ferris wheel in Beirut that had survived the 15-year civil war. Cyprus, Syria, Israel and Jordan were also hit.

The British meteorological office said winds averaged up to 50 mph in the eastern Mediterranean region and visibility was brought down to 100 metres by the amount of sand in the atmosphere. Travel across the region was severely disrupted. Five people died on Egypt's roads, while seven schoolgirls were injured in a Cairo suburb when a wall fell on them.

Robin Cook was caught in a hail storm in Har Homa
The visit to the region of British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, was hit by both the snow and the sand. The start of his Middle East tour was delayed when the Khamasin winds prevented him from flying to Cairo airport, and his departure from Jerusalem was put back by the cold weather there.

The Khamasin phenomenon arises when cold winds from Europe meet the hot winds from the Sahara. The resulting depression moves east from north-west Africa, pushing hot, sand-bearing winds first, followed by a drop in temperature. It can take place at any time during a period of roughly 50 days in the early spring.

See also:

16 Mar 98 | Despatches
Sandstorm sweeps through Middle East
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