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Passengers hold protest after heavy snow closes Istanbul airport

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Stranded passengers sleep on the floor at Istanbul airport on Jan. 25. (Yasin Akgul/AFP/Getty Images)

ISTANBUL — Turkish police deployed briefly to Istanbul’s main international airport Tuesday, after passengers stranded there because of an unusually heavy snowfall staged what appeared to be a protest in the airport’s cavernous departure hall.

Passengers chanting, “We need hotel!” marched through the hall, near the duty-free shop and luxury stores, according to a spokeswoman for the airport and videos posted on social media by passengers, some of whom said they had been stranded in the facility for more than a day with no help from staff and no provision of food or water.

Other videos posted by local news channels showed dozens of black-clad police officers in the departure hall, as the chanting continued. A spokeswoman for the airport said the officers worked at the facility, and had not been brought in from outside.

A spokesman for Turkish Airlines, the national carrier, did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment on the delays or the passenger complaints.

Heavy snow blanketed Istanbul beginning Sunday evening, snarling roads and briefly halting ship traffic through the Bosporus. By Tuesday, local authorities had banned private cars from roads and told public servants to stay home.

Officials at IST Istanbul Airport — among the world’s biggest, and one of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s vaunted megaprojects — announced Monday evening that flights would be suspended until early Tuesday morning due to “adverse weather and heavy snowfall.” The roof of a temporary cargo building used by Turkish Airlines collapsed because of the snow accumulation Monday but caused no injuries, an official from the company said.

The suspension of flights was later extended until midnight Wednesday, as crews worked to clear what the airport said was 16 inches of accumulated snow on the runways and other parts of the airport using nearly 200 snow removal vehicles. On Tuesday evening, as videos of the protest and the police response circulated, the airport said on its Twitter account that it was providing thousands of free blankets and lunchboxes to passengers.

In a phone interview Tuesday evening, Seyda Yilmaz, the airport spokeswoman, said that the situation at the facility was “under control” and that 11 flights had been able to land, and one had departed, since noon on Tuesday when one of the runways was reopened. She said some passengers had been in “limbo” because their airlines had not provided hotels, but denied that was the fault of the airport, which was providing a 50 percent discount on food inside the terminal.

Sina Boroumand, a PhD student at Imperial College in London, said he had been stranded at the airport since his Turkish Airlines flight from Iran arrived in Istanbul shortly before 11 a.m. Monday. His connecting flight to London on the same airline — which was supposed to leave a few hours later — sat on the tarmac for 10 hours, unable to take off because of the snow, as passengers waited for a “rescue” team to get them off the plane, he said. The bus ride from the runway to the airport building took another hour.

At the airport, “no one was there to help us,” he said. The staff appeared “confused.” He slept on the airport’s cold floor on Monday night, he said. By Tuesday, the airport’s restaurants were beginning to run out of food. Staff members were offering blankets to stranded passengers but had run out before he received one. And no one — not the airport staff and not Turkish Airlines — had offered a hotel room.

He planned to spend Tuesday night sleeping on the floor as well, before his flight early Wednesday. The snowstorm was beyond the airport’s control, but it was their “responsibility to manage this situation,” he said.

“The biggest problem was lack of communication between the staff and the passengers.”