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Afghanistan fears avalanche toll could rise

by Staff Writers
Kabul (AFP) Feb 11, 2010
Afghan officials voiced fears Thursday the death toll from one of the country's worst natural disasters could rise, as rescuers used everything from bare hands to bulldozers to find bodies buried in snow.

The bodies of at least 169 people killed when avalanches hit a treacherous mountain highway in northern Afghanistan this week have been recovered, said the public health director of Parwan province, Mohammad Qasim Sayedi.

"Today we have taken out three bodies -- a woman and two men, bringing to 169 the total number of bodies so far, with 130 injured," he said.

Scores of vehicles remain buried beneath massive snow floes and could contain more bodies, the interior ministry said.

"We're not clear yet on how many cars are still under the snow, but police have been working on recovery since yesterday and are hoping to bring the operation to an end soon," ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary told AFP.

More than 2,000 people had been rescued uninjured, he said.

On Monday, a heavy blizzard struck the Salang Pass, the major route connecting the capital Kabul with the north of the country through the Hindu Kush mountain range.

Massive walls of snow crashed on to the highway, burying dozens of vehicles and pushing many into the steep and rocky valley below.

Officials said at least 36 avalanches took place late Monday and on Tuesday, of which three caused most of the casualties. Another 12 people were killed in avalanches in Bamiyan province on Wednesday.

Much of northern Afghanistan is relatively sheltered from the eight-year Taliban insurgency that 113,000 NATO and US troops are trying to quell.

Bashary said rescue work at Salang was "90-95 percent" complete, with around one kilometre of the 3.5-kilometre (two-mile) pass yet to be cleared.

The health ministry has stationed 42 ambulances, staffed by doctors and nurses, at the tunnel entrances to aid the injured as they are brought out, spokesman Ahmad Farid Raaid said.

He put the number of injured at 130.

"There is fear there will be more dead bodies in the vehicles that are being pulled out of the snow," he said.

An army battalion backed up by heavy machinery and other excavating equipment had been deployed to the pass for rescue and recovery work, a senior defence ministry official said.

Every day as many as 16,000 vehicles traverse the Salang pass, located about 3,400 metres (11,000 feet) above sea level.

The only major route linking the country's north and south, it was built with Soviet help in the 1950s to bypass central Bamiyan province through the Hindu Kush range.

The pass provides the shortest route linking the two ends of the mountainous country and as one of the highest mountain highways in the world was hailed as an engineering feat upon its completion.

Soldiers of the Afghan army were flown by helicopters to the site on Wednesday, and with the help of local villagers frantically dug through the snow to try to find survivors who had been buried alive in the snow.

The avalanches dumped such huge quantities of snow with such ferocity that windows of cars and buses smashed as they tumbled into the valley below.

Many of the dead were killed as their vehicles plunged down the mountainsides, while others perished in the freezing conditions.

Ahmad Shah Waheed, deputy public works minister, told reporters on Wednesday that 1,600 people had been rescued but hundreds of vehicles remained trapped in the rugged pass where heavy snow storms blocked the traffic.

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

In the poor, isolated and mountainous province of Bamiyan, north of Kabul, 12 members of the same family were killed in an avalanche on Wednesday, a spokesman for the provincial governor said.

"The avalanche hit a house in which 12 people, all from the one family, were killed, including three men, four women and five children," said Abdul Rahman Ahmadi, adding that another three people in the house were saved by neighbours.

An avalanche earlier in the week had a policewoman who was among eight people travelling in a minivan through the province's Waras district when it was hit by falling snow, he said.

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