ISLAMABAD: At least 71 people were killed and others were missing after avalanches in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir over the last 24 hours, senior government officials said on Tuesday.
Two officials said many villagers were still stranded in the avalanches in the Neelum valley area following heavy rains that also triggered landslides.
According to Ahmad Raza Qadri, the Khyber Pakhtunkhawa chief of provincial disaster management, 49 bodies were removed from collapsed buildings in Muzaffarabad.
“Rescue operation is underway with the help of Pakistan Army,” Qadri said, adding that due to the severe weather conditions the rescue operations were hampered.
He added the injured were shifted in Pakistan Army helicopters to nearby hospitals.
Many people were reported missing and feared dead as rescue efforts got underway, one of the officials said.
Little respite is expected, at least until Tuesday, because, according to meteorologists, the “strong westerly wave”, affecting most upper and central parts of the country, is unlikely to dissipate over upper parts of the country.
The Provincial Disaster Management Authority says it can confirm at least 21 deaths in weather-related incidents across Balochistan. It has declared a state of emergency in the districts of Mastung, Qila Abdullah, Kech, Ziarat, Harnai, and Pishin.
Tons of snow was dumped on Khojak Top – the mountainous pass connecting Qila Abdullah with Chaman – snarling travel. The Chaman-Quetta highway was also clogged with motorists and travellers stranded out in the open in freezing temperatures.
Paramilitary Frontier Corps has been called out to help police clear the clogged roadways. Authorities have advised against unnecessary travel because the slippery, slushy mess on the roads is extremely dangerous for drivers.
Chief Minister Jam Kamal told the media that the situation is not normal and a high alert has been sent to local officials and rescue teams in their respective regions where up to four feet of snowfall has been reported so far.
“The government is on high alert and official teams are working round the clock for rescue work. We are managing to clear the roads and reach the stranded people and those in need,” he added.
As if it wasn’t enough, water and power supplies as well as communications system – including internet service – also gave in to the inclement weather.
The heaviest snowfall – two feet – was recorded by the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) in Ziarat, while Quetta and Zhob each received more than a foot of snow. As for the rainfall, 56 millimeters was recorded in Turbat, 40mm in Pasni, and 26mm in Pishin.
A PIA plane got stuck at Quetta airport on Monday due to heavy snowfall and lack of de-icing facilities. “The flight was coming from Jeddah,” said PIA spokesperson Abdullah Khan. “As soon as it landed, heavy snowfall started and the plane got stuck in the snow,” he said.
For tourists, the snow has turned Quetta into a white fairytale land mesmerising to behold. They are flocking to the city with their families to enjoy snowfall. One of the main attractions for tourists is Prince Road – a pedestrianised food street of the city. Among the most popular delicacies are sujji, chapli kebab and fried fish.
The mountainous region of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) is also wrapped in a blanket of winter snow – and continues to receive more. Muzaffarabad Division’s Commissioner Imtiaz Ahmad has confirmed at least 16 deaths and another 10 missing in avalanches mainly in the remote Neelum Valley.
According to him, five people died when they were caught off-guard by an avalanche in Dakki Chaknar area. Separately, an avalanche buried three houses with families inside in Kundian Wala village of Kel area. Rescuers retrieved the bodies of a woman and her two children. A minor, meanwhile, died when the roof of her mud-house gave in to heavy snow in Ghori village of Dudnial area.
In another incident, a huge mass of snow fell on four schoolgirls when they were walking to their school in Lawat village of Neelum Valley. Three of them were rescued with injuries, but the fourth was not lucky enough.
Another 10 people are missing – and presumed dead – in another avalanche in the Surgan area, according to Commissioner Imtiaz.
AJK President Sardar Masood Khan has directed authorities to evacuate population from the areas worst hit by the inclement weather. “Every possible step should be taken to shift the affected population to safer places,” he added while seeking help from the Red Crescent Society and other humanitarian organisations for relief operations.
A Special Emergency Desk has been set up in the State Disaster Management Authority to monitor the situation.
With additional input from REUTERS.