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Rare snowstorm blankets Middle East

From Syria and Lebanon, to Egypt and Jerusalem, snowfall and cold temperatures have complicated fighting, humanitarian efforts, and daily life this week.

By Associated Press / December 14, 2013

Palestinian children play with snow in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Saturday. A storm, dubbed Alexa, brought gusty winds, torrential rains and heavy snowfall to parts of the Middle East.

Majdi Mohammed/AP

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Jerusalem

A powerful winter storm left Jerusalem covered in snow on Friday, forcing police to block access to and from the city as a cold snap drove some Israelis to seek treatment from emergency medics.

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Rare snow also fell in Cairo's suburbs and the port city of Alexandria while a blanket of white covered St. Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai.

In Syria's contested northern city of Aleppo, soldiers and rebels took a break from fighting as a thick layer of snow blanketed deserted streets, cars and buildings and temperatures hovered around zero.

An anti-government activist said it has been quieter than it has been in more than a year, since the storm began late Tuesday.

"All the fighters are cold and hiding," the activist who uses the pseudonym Abu Raed said.

He said residents in the city were relying on diesel or wood heaters although some had only blankets. Snow also fell in Damascus, but was quickly washed away by the rain.

The weather also delayed for the second day an airlift of urgently needed food aid from Erbil, Iraq, to Qamishli in northeast Syria for displaced families, according to United Nations food agency. As soon as the Qamishli airport opens, WFP will start airlifting over 400 tons of food on two aircraft with 12 return flights between Iraq and Syria, it said.

Humanitarian agencies opted for air route because roads leading to Syria's northern Hassakeh province have not been safe for convoy due to fighting in the area, the agency added.

The cold weather was part of a storm, dubbed Alexa, which has been pounding much of Lebanon and parts of northern Syria since Wednesday, pushing temperatures below zero in mountainous areas and dumping snow and heavy rains. The snow has heaped another layer of misery on the already grim existence of many of the more than 2 million Syrians who have fled the civil war raging in their homeland.

In Lebanon, snow fell on northern and eastern regions where tens of thousands of Syrian refugees are staying, many of them in flimsy plastic tents.

A Lebanese security official said a three-month-old Syrian baby died Friday in the northern town of Akroum. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said the newborn had respiratory problems and the cold spell may have aggravated his condition.

Syrian refugees struggled to keep tents in place and were seen gathering sticks of wood from nearby fields to use them for heating. Families crammed into damp, muddy tents struggled to keep warm. In some cases, Syrian children came out of their tents to play with the snow.

Israelis were told over media and public broadcasts on Friday not to enter or leave Jerusalem and some 1,500 people were evacuated from stranded vehicles overnight, said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.

Three emergency centers were set up and medics treated 350 people for cold-related symptoms, Rosenfeld said. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said he asked the military for assistance. The airport also stopped flights briefly and several highways and main roads around Jerusalem were closed.

The weather even featured in talks between visiting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said he was briefed on the emergency measures.

Kerry, a former Massachusetts senator, said the snow made him feel "at home."

"I have heard of making guests welcome and feeling at home. This is about as far as I've ever seen anything go ... giving me a New England snowstorm," Kerry said as he viewed a snow-covered Old City of Jerusalem with Netanyahu.

In the West Bank and Gaza, U.N. relief teams offered emergency services to the worst-hit communities.

In Gaza, which was experiencing its first snow in a decade, more than 500 people were evacuated from their homes, according to Hamas spokesman Ihab Ghussein.

Egypt's state MENA news agency said the country's two Mediterranean ports near the city of Alexandria and two ports on the Red Sea remained closed for the third consecutive day Friday.

The report quoted the head of the Alexandria port authority, Adel Yassin Hammad, as saying the decision was taken to avoid possible accidents.

AP writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

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