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.