Thursday, February 11, 2010

167 killed in avalanche in Afghanistan

These are the brave and hardy souls that keep the tunnel and road open through the Salang Tunnel. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Using bulldozers, pick axes and shovels, rescue teams intensified their search for remaining survivors hit by avalanches on a key mountain pass in Afghanistan as the discovery of one body raised the death toll to 167.

Some 3,000 people have already been rescued from the snowbound, 4000 metre Salang Pass, which is the major route through the Hindu Kush mountains that connects the capital to the north.

Defense Ministry official Ahmad Zia Aftali said the corpse of a woman whose son was rescued a day earlier was found under the snow in the morning on the pass, 115 kilometres north of the capital. A total of 167 victims have been recovered so far.

Aftali said the Afghan side plans to ask the international coalition for additional equipment, including metal detectors, to aid in the search.

Hundreds of soldiers and police plowed through huge snowdrifts to clear the 2 miles (3.5 kilometers) of road that had been blocked off when a series of avalanches Monday sent tons of snow and ice crashing down onto hundreds of vehicles along a treacherous stretch of highway.

The road leading up to the tunnel through the Salang Pass, in Summer. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Though the road has now been cleared, it remains closed to the public to allow for emergency efforts, Aftali said. The highway that winds through the mountainside remains littered with abandoned or snow-packed cars.

Rescuers are searching farther afield looking for victims since many cars, trucks and buses were pushed far off the road by the force of the avalanches, Aftali said.

He said he is hopeful that rescue efforts can wind down by the end of the day. "I'm optimistic that today we can finish our efforts," he said.

Interior Ministry spokesman Zemari Bashary said late Wednesday that the rescue operation was "95 percent over," indicating that officials weren't expecting casualty numbers to rise significantly.

Some of the victims were found frozen to death inside their vehicles, while in other cases, their bodies were strewn along the road, he said. About 125 people were given medical treatment at provincial hospitals, he said.

More than two dozen avalanches poured tons of snow and ice on the 3,800-metre pass, closing off the 2.6 kilometre-long Salang Tunnel, a Soviet-built landmark dating from the 1960s, and the roads on both sides.

The casualty toll makes this perhaps the deadliest disaster to occur along the Salang Pass. Last year, avalanches claimed nearly a dozen lives.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Avalanches kill at least 28 in Afghanistan

The photograph on the cover of my book, looks up towards the Salang Pass where the avalanche occured yesterday. Photo: Bob McKerrow

At least 28 people died and hundreds were trapped through the night in freezing cold and darkness after avalanches closed a mountain highway tunnel in Afghanistan,

Passengers trapped in the Salang pass, the main route across the Hindu Kush mountains, said by telephone that they were freezing to death and being suffocated by car fumes, and had seen cars filled with dead bodies after being stuck throon 9 February 2010.ugh the night.

A force of 600 soldiers plus police units and other emergency workers had managed to evacuate 1500 trapped people, including at least 70 who were injured, the Defence Ministry said in a statement that gave a death toll of 28.

Days of heavy snow triggered avalanches blocking the 2.6 km long Soviet-built tunnel, a historic engineering feat that links Kabul and Afghanistan's north, connecting the Indian subcontinent to Central Asia through the treacherous mountain pass at 3400 metres.

"I saw five dead bodies from a car parked behind us, and so far the government has not done enough to save our lives," Qazi Azhar, an Afghan judge who was caught in the pass, told Reuters by mobile phone.

Another passenger, Ghulam Yahya, said passengers inside the tunnel were suffering from fumes.

"Many others will die if we don't get help on time," he said.

President Hamid Karzai said he was saddened by the deaths and ordered government workers to do all possible to open the pass.

Abdul Mateen Edraak, head of Afghanistan's National Disaster and Preparedness Centre, said fears were greatest for passengers stuck in cars exposed to the extreme cold.

"Some 50 cars which are exposed to extreme weather are a concern for us but others inside tunnel are not bad," he said. "The people are stuck there for more than 24 hours and if there are no other avalanches we will hopefully bring them out by end of the day."

Edraak said there had been 17 avalanches reported so far and more than 200 trucks, buses and cars were trapped inside the tunnel, which made the rescue operation more difficult.

Heavy snowfall and rain also caused floods in the south of the country. Zalmay Ayoubi, spokesman for the governor of southern Kandahar Province, said six people had been killed and 10 were missing as a result of floods.