Avalanches Bury Tunnel Northern Afghanistan

Avalanches in a mountain pass just north of Kabul, Afghanistan have killed at least 60 people and injured more than 400. The avalanches Monday followed heavy snow in the Salang Pass that links the Afghan capital with the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. They began at the southern approaches of the 12,000-foot-high Salang Pass, just south of a tunnel through the mountains. A storm with heavy wind and rain blew in suddenly during the afternoon, setting off a series of 17 avalanches above the highway. More than two miles were buried in the Hindu Kush mountain range. The avalanche enveloped the heaily-traveled highway, burying many cars and shoving others over the edge deep into the gorge. More than 200 trucks, buses and cars were trapped inside the tunnel. Nearly a mile of highway remained buried Tuesday. The storm blew up so quickly there was no time to close the busy highway.

Rescuers worked through the night to save 430 injured, with 180 taken by coalition helicopters to Bagram Airbase for medical treatment. The remaining 250 people were treated at Parwan Hospital, in nearby Chasikar city, suffering from injuries and exposure. Among them were 11 children who were separated from their families by the avalanches. Afghan news reports said people trapped inside the tunnel were calling for help on cell phones, saying they were freezing to death and choking on exhaust fumes. “I saw five dead bodies from a car parked behind us, and so far the government has not done enough to save our lives,” Qazi Azhar, an Afghan judge who was caught in the pass, told Reuters by mobile phone.

Interior Minister Hanif Atmar said Tuesday that rescuers have already recovered 24 bodies, and fear more than 40 others have already died. Some 2,500 people have been rescued from their snow-blocked vehicles. In a separate statement, the Ministry of Defence said that 30 had been confirmed dead so far. A force of 600 soldiers plus police units and other emergency vehicles had managed to evacuate 1,500 trapped people, including at least 70 who were injured. “Some 50 cars which are exposed to extreme weather are concern for us but others inside the tunnel are not bad,” said Abdul Mateen Edraak, head of Afghanistan’s National Disaster and Preparedness Centre. “The people are stuck there for more than 24 hours and if there are no other avalanches we will hopefully bring them out by the end of the day.” (The Globe & Mail)

President Hamid Karzai ordered the ministries of public works, defence and disaster control to “use all possible means to get the roads unblocked and rescue those trapped and stranded in the heavy snow.” (CBC) About 100 Afghan soldiers were mobilized to join police and others in the rescue effort, along with four helicopters, several ambulances and several bulldozers. “Unfortunately there were more avalanches this morning which made our work a little difficult, but we are trying to rescue people,” Defence Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said. Authorities expressed that even more avalanches could continue to hamper the rescue effort.

NATO and Afghan National Army helicopters joined in the rescue efforts. Military helicopters were dropping food packages to people stuck on snow-blocked roads.  Efforts were suspended with nightfall but would resume Wednesday morning. Police and rescue workers had been on the job for 24 hours and many were suffering from exposure to the cold and needed to be replaced by fresh workers. Mr. Atmar issued an appeal for anyone with heavy equipment capable of moving snow to rent it to the government because the authorities did not have enough of their own.

The avalanches did not appear to have any effect on the fight against the Taliban; the Salang Pass is in a relatively peaceful part of northern Afghanistan. In other parts of the country, heavy snowfall and rain also caused floods in the south. Six people have been killed and 10 are missing as a result of the floods.

The Salang Pass tunnel, built by the Soviets in the 1960s, has a long history of fatal disasters, including fires, explosions and mass asphyxiation in the narrow and poorly ventilated tunnel. The tunnel connects the Indian subcontinent to Central Asia through the treacherous mountain pass at 3,400 metres. In 1982, hundreds of soldiers from the Soviet Union’s occupation force in Afghanistan perished during a fire in the tunnel.

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