Darkness and bad weather forced rescuers to postpone their search on Saturday after an avalanche smashed into a Pakistan Army camp, burying at least 124 soldiers and 11 civilians in “the world’s highest battleground”.
Over 150 soldiers, with sniffer dogs and aided by helicopters, had been deployed to search in the deep snow after the avalanche engulfed the camp in mountainous Giari sector of Baltistan region, near Siachen Glacier, in Kashmir.
“The dark and bad weather has forced us to stop rescue work. We will resume it early morning,” a security official told AFP late in the evening after a frantic rescue operation throughout the day.
Army spokesperson Maj Gen Athar Abbas said that despite hours of hectic search, no bodies or survivors had been found.
“It’s too early to say anything,” he replied when asked about the chances of finding anyone alive after more than 12 hours.
The trapped troops and civilians, paid out of the defence establishment, belonged to the 6 Northern Light Infantry Battalion, the headquarters of which has been situated in the same place for the last 20 years.
The avalanche struck early on Saturday morning, a military statement said, raising the possibility that the buried soldiers were asleep at the time.
“More than 100 soldiers of NLI (Northern Light Infantry), including a colonel, were trapped when the avalanche hit a military camp,” Maj-Gen Abbas said earlier in the day.
By the evening, the Inter-Services Public Relations, the media arm of the military, stated that 124 troops and 11 civilians were trapped in the avalanche, which occurred at an altitude of about 16,000 feet.
Independent sources, however, put the number of trapped soldiers at 130. “The number of the buried soldiers could be nearly 130,” official sources in Gilgit told The Express Tribune.
The snow left by the avalanche is up to 80 feet deep and stretched over one kilometre area, state television quoted Maj Gen Abbas as saying.
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani expressed deep shock at the potentially heavy loss of life and regret over the ‘unfortunate snow slide’.
A statement from the prime minister stated that he is in constant contact with the concerned authorities regarding the rescue operation. “The incident in no way will undermine the high morale of soldiers and officers,” he said.
In 1984, India occupied the key areas on Siachen Glacier, including the heights, and Pakistan immediately responded by deploying its own forces. They fought a fierce battle in 1987, raising fears of all-out conflict.
The heavily militarised glacier is over 20,800 feet high, but despite its limited strategic importance both countries have spent heavily to keep a military presence there.
India reportedly forks out more than $800,000 daily on its Siachen deployment – a figure that does not include additional wages and bonuses.
Experts have previously said that India has around 5,000 troops on the glacier, while Pakistan has less than half that number. The harsh weather and the altitude claim many more lives than actual fighting. (ADDITIONAL INPUT FROM AGENCIES)
Published in The Express Tribune, April 8th, 2012.