AFP, February 10, 2010

Afghan avalanches kill 165, rescue underway

An unknown number of bodies were recovered from a third location along the pass

By Shah Marai

SALANG — Rescuers recovered the bodies of 165 people killed by a series of avalanches on a treacherous Afghan mountain pass in one of the country's worst such disasters, an official said on Wednesday.

Salang pass
Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers search for bodies in the snow after avalanches killed at least 157 people in Salang tunnel in Parwan province, February 10, 2010. Afghan rescue workers searched for survivors for the third day on Wednesday in the avalanche-stricken mountain pass, fearing that dozens of people were still buried under snow. (Photo: REUTERS)

A heavy blizzard struck the busy road connecting the capital Kabul to the north of the country on Monday, triggering avalanches that buried people in vehicles on the strategic pass and wounded dozens of travellers.

"According to the latest information from the area, 165 of our countrymen have been killed and 135 have been injured," Suraya Dalil, acting public health minister, told reporters.

She said it was one of the biggest natural disaster tragedies that Afghanistan has suffered in recent years.

Large parts of the north of Afghanistan have been relatively sheltered from the eight-year Taliban insurgency that 113,000 NATO and US forces are in the country trying to quell.

An AFP photographer on the scene said massive avalanches had pushed vehicles from the road into the deep valley below, with at least nine passenger cars and two large buses lying upside down on the valley floor.

Afghan soldiers, police and local villagers were digging through the snow in search of bodies, using shovel and hand-made tools, the photographer said.

The rescue and recovery effort was backed up by heavy digging machinery and bulldozers, he said, and more soldiers were arriving by helicopter.

General Ahmad Zia Yaftali, chief doctor in the Afghan army had earlier Wednesday put the overall death toll at 68, after bodies were counted from two sites on the pass that had been buried by snow.

An unknown number of bodies were recovered from a third location along the pass, he had said, adding that snowfall was hampering the risky operation.

At least 14 rescued survivors had been trapped in a bus, said Abdul Basir Salangi, governor of Parwan province, where the disaster took place.

"It is a miracle these people survived buried under the snow for 37 hours," he said, adding that snow had entered the bus through broken windows.

The defence ministry said Tuesday that 1,500 people stranded by the avalanches had been rescued.

Interior Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar fended off questions about why the road was open in the first place, insisting the situation appeared manageable until the storm struck abruptly.

"All of a sudden, a storm hit the area which resulted in a number of avalanches hitting the main highway and closing the road for up to 3.5 kilometres (two miles)," Atmar told a news conference.

Such deadly avalanches are rare in Afghanistan during winter, but are more frequent in the spring when heavy snows melt.

Northern Afghanistan has been spared the worst of the eight-year Taliban insurgency raging in the south and east of the country.

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