Afghan Avalanche Death Toll Soars to 157

Members of Afghan army try to remove snow from an overturned vehicle buried under snow at Salang Pass, some 71 miles north of Kabul, Afghanistan, Feb. 10, 2010. AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq

The death toll from massive avalanches that blocked a mountain pass north of Kabul soared to 157, as hundreds more remained trapped in their snowbound vehicles, Afghan officials said Wednesday.

Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary said rescuers have recovered 157 bodies from the Salang Pass, a key road that connects the Afghan capital with the north, over the past two days. The number of deaths had more than doubled from the last reported figure of 64 a day earlier, as rescue teams scrambled to reach survivors.

At a press conference in Kabul, Bashary said 1.5 miles of road have been cleared for ambulances, bulldozers and other road-clearing equipment to get through. About 2,600 people have been rescued so far, he said.

A series of avalanches that were triggered Monday along the 12,700-feet-high pass closed off roads and stranded hundreds of people in snowbound vehicles.

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.

More than two dozen avalanches had poured tons of snow and ice on the pass, blocking off 2.1 miles of road and burying hundreds of vehicles. The 1.6 mile-long Salang Tunnel, a Soviet-built landmark dating from the 1960s through the Hindu Kush mountains, had been cut off, with dozens of cars, buses and trucks jammed inside.

Some 400 police, along with 100 local volunteers, have been involved in the frantic effort to dig out survivors in the last 24 hours, he said.

Bashary said 135 bodies have been taken to Parwan province to the north while the remainder were taken to Baglan province in the south.

Rescuers reached dozens more of the stranded this morning, including seven children whose mother had died.

Search-and-rescue teams took advantage of clear and sunny weather on the pass to retrieve more victims, said Suhrab Ali Safari, the acting minister of public works.

"Now the weather is good so we're trying to find more bodies. Most of them we found on the road under the snow," he said. "The avalanche was very strong. It pushed the cars 200 yards away from the road."

Emergency rescue workers said among the dozens of vehicles stuck in the high drifts of snow were two buses. In one bus, at least 15 people were found dead.

On Tuesday, the Defense Ministry said that Afghan forces had managed to evacuate more than 400 of the injured, with 180 taken by coalition helicopters to Bagram Airbase for medical treatment, said Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak.

Some 500 Afghan soldiers were also mobilized to join the police and others in rescue efforts. The international coalition contributed four Chinook helicopters, while the army sent two choppers, several ambulances and several bulldozers, the Afghan National Army said.
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