Bad weather dogs search for Kashmir avalanche soldiers

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Rescue effort at the scene of the avalancheImage source, AFP
Image caption,
The military says that more diggers are urgently needed if survivors are to be found at the site of the avalanche

Frantic efforts are continuing in Pakistani-administered Kashmir to find 139 people, most of them troops, buried underneath a huge avalanche.

But the rescue effort is being undermined by continuing bad weather and by the scale of Saturday's avalanche, one of the biggest in 20 years.

In places it is believed to be 24m deep (80ft), covering a 1 sq km area.

Hope is fading that survivors may be found, five days after the disaster.

The bad weather has meant that a US rescue team has been unable to leave Islamabad to go to the affected area, but Swiss and Germany rescuers left for the area by road on Tuesday night.

Officials say 139 people - mostly soldiers - are buried beneath a "tidal wave" of snow, heavy boulders and ice after the avalanche engulfed a military camp near the Siachen Glacier early on Saturday morning.

The authorities say that they are unable to transport more powerful and better equipped diggers and excavators to the area because of continuing snowfall since Sunday.

Hundreds of troops, plus sniffer dogs and helicopters are involved in the rescue operation.

'Needle in haystack'

They say that villagers - some only equipped with shovels - have been helping local military personnel in efforts to find the buried camp, an exercise in sub-zero temperatures which they have likened to "trying to find a needle in a haystack".

The BBC's M Ilyas Khan in Islamabad says that the military was caught by surprise by the sheer scale of the avalanche, which was the worst in the area in 20 years.

Our correspondent says that the rescue effort is likely to continue for at least a few more days because the camp is well equipped with food supplies and it is possible some survivors could have taken shelter before the avalanche hit.

Rescuers hope there will be a break in the weather on Wednesday to get more supplies through to Gilgit and Skardu - the two nearest towns - but so far that has not happened despite the onset of spring.

The area around the camp is surrounded by some of the world's highest mountains and is located 15,000ft (4,572 m) above sea level in Kashmir's Gayari district, near the border with India.

The missing soldiers were from the Northern Light Infantry regiment, which is trained in mountain operations.

A previous avalanche in the area killed 24 Pakistani troops in 2010 - believed to be the heaviest loss of life in such an incident until now.

Kashmir has been partitioned between India and Pakistan since 1947.

Failure to agree on the status of the territory by diplomatic means has twice brought India and Pakistan to war.

The Siachen glacier is known as the world's highest battlefield, and soldiers have been deployed at heights of up to 6,700m (22,000 ft) above sea level.

More soldiers have died from the harsh weather conditions there than in combat.

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