World

Pakistani troops dig for 135 missing in avalanche

Search continues for 135 missing; no survivors yet

Associated Press File
A wall of snow engulfed a military complex at the entrance to the Siachen Glacier, on Pakistan’s border with India.

ISLAMABAD - Pakistani soldiers dug into a massive avalanche in a mountain battleground close to the Indian border on Saturday, searching for at least 135 people buried when the wall of snow engulfed a military complex.

More than 12 hours after the disaster at the entrance to the Siachen Glacier, no survivors had been found.

“We are waiting for news and keeping our fingers crossed,’’ said army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas.

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Hundreds of troops, search dogs, and mechanical equipment were at the scene but were struggling to make much headway into the avalanche, which crashed into a headquarters building in the Gayari sector early in the morning, burying it under some 70 feet of snow, Abbas said.

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“It’s on a massive scale,’’ he added. “Everything is completely covered.’’

The military said in a statement that at least 124 soldiers and 11 civilian contractors were missing.

Siachen is on the northern tip of the divided Kashmir region claimed by both India and Pakistan. The accident highlighted the risks of deploying troops to one of the most inhospitable places on earth.

The thousands of troops from both nations stationed there brave viciously cold temperatures, altitude sickness, high winds, and isolation for months at a time.

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Troops have been deployed at elevations of up to 22,000 feet and have skirmished intermittently since 1984, though the area has been quiet since a cease-fire in 2003. The glacier is known as the world’s highest battlefield.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani expressed shock at the incident, which he said “would in no way undermine the high morale of soldiers and officers.’’

The headquarters in Gayari, situated at around 15,000 feet, is the main gateway through which troops and supplies pass on their way to other more remote outposts in the sector. It is situated in a valley between two high mountains, close to a military hospital, according to an officer who was stationed there in 2003.

“I can’t comprehend how an avalanche can reach that place,’’ said the officer. “It was supposed to be safe.’’

More soldiers have died from the weather than combat on the glacier, which was uninhabited before troops moved there.

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Conflict there began in 1984 when India occupied the heights of the glacier, fearing Pakistan wanted to claim the territory.