Afghan avalanche kills 150-plus

On top of all of Afghanistan’s
woes, there’s something else wreaking havoc on citizens north of its capital
this week: Snow, and lots of it.

Afghanistan’s mountainous regions
suffer below-freezing temperatures and heavy snowfall each year, blocking
transport and leading to hundreds of deaths annually. Even the pace of war
normally slows during winter.

Earlier this week, precipitation
triggered a series of avalanches at a mountain pass north of Kabul, and the
Interior Ministry says at least 157 people have been found dead so far.
Rescuers are still digging for survivors, and dozens of people are feared
trapped in their vehicles.

The snow began cascading down
Monday from peaks towering above the capital, and buried the Salang Pass – a
key road that connects Kabul with northern areas. Some stretches of the road
reach an elevation of 12,700 feet – making them vulnerable to fierce winds and
snow.

Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary
told reporters today that 157 bodies have been recovered so far. About 2,600
people have been rescued alive, and 1.6 miles of road have been cleared for ambulances
and bulldozers to get through, he said. His comments were carried by several
news agencies.

Gen. Mohammad Rajab, head of the
Kabul-Salang highway, told Reuters “the rescue operation is still ongoing
and the death toll may rise as we dig out dozens of other frozen bodies.”

“There are many other cars
swept away…by avalanches and we’re trying to rescue if anyone is still
alive,” Rajab said.

Up to 1,000 Afghan troops have
cleared a narrow footpath for survivors to walk to safety, alongside miles of
cars abandoned in the snow. Troops and survivors carried the injured and
elderly for miles on their backs. Afghan army helicopters swooped down every
few minutes to carry corpses to lower ground, the New York Times reported.

President Hamid Karzai ordered
officials “to use all possible means to get the roads unblocked and rescue
those trapped and stranded in the heavy snow,” according to a statement
issued by his office.

A Reuters correspondent also
reported seeing survivors inside a passenger bus that was swept away into a
steep gorge. People below were shouting for help. Several cars and at least two
other buses had also slipped off the cliff.

A villager who goes by the single
moniker of Azizullah told the Times that people in his village tried on Tuesday
to reach one of the fallen buses and found 14 people who survived because of an
air pocket under the snow. But 41 other passengers died, he said.

There were reports from Afghan news
agencies that people were also trapped inside a tunnel that burrows through the
Hindu Kush mountains at the Salang Pass. Victims were calling for help on cell
phones and saying they were freezing to death or choking on exhaust fumes, the
Times reported.

The tunnel was built by the Soviets
in 1964 and is badly in need of repair. In 1982 during the Soviet occupation,
scores of troops died in a fire that trapped them in the narrow, poorly
ventilated tunnel.