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US to assist in Pakistan’s search for 135 buried in avalanche

Inter Services Public Relations via Reuters TV

A military helicopter flew over Siachen Glacier in Pakistan, where searchers dug through 80 feet of snow, boulders, and mud.

ISLAMABAD - The United States sent a team of specialists Sunday to help Pakistan search for 135 people buried a day earlier by a massive avalanche that engulfed a military complex at a mountain battleground close to the Indian border.

At least 240 Pakistani troops and civilians worked at the site of the disaster at the entrance to the Siachen Glacier with the aid of search dogs and heavy machinery, said the army. But they struggled to dig through some 80 feet of snow, boulders, and mud that slid down the mountain early Saturday morning.

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Pakistani Army spokesman General Athar Abbas said Sunday evening that it was unclear whether any of the people who were buried are still alive. At least 124 soldiers from the Sixth Northern Light Infantry Battalion and 11 civilian contractors are missing.

“Miracles have been seen and trapped people were rescued after days . . . so the nation shall pray for the trapped soldiers,’’ Abbas said on Geo TV.

The Pakistani Army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, visited the site Sunday to supervise rescue operations. The United States sent a team of eight to Islamabad to provide technical assistance, said the Pakistani Army. Pakistan will consult with the team to determine what help is needed to expedite the rescue operation.

The American assistance comes at a tense time between the two countries and could help improve relations after American airstrikes in November that accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at two posts along the Afghan border.

Pakistan retaliated by closing its border crossings to supplies meant for NATO troops in Afghanistan. The Pakistani Parliament is debating a new framework for relations with the United States that Washington hopes will lead to the reopening of the supply line. But that outcome is uncertain given the level of anti-American sentiment in the country.

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

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

Abbas said the headquarters that was buried was in an area previously believed to be safe. At an altitude of around 15,000 feet, it is the main gateway through which troops and supplies pass on their way to more remote outposts.

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

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