Himalayan avalanche buried scores of Pakistani troops, army says


In this May 2003 file photo, an army helicopter flies over the Siachen Glacier on Pakistan-India border. An avalanche smashed into a Pakistani army base on the Himalayan glacier close to India on Saturday, burying around 100 soldiers. (AP/AP)
April 7, 2012

A huge avalanche buried more than 120 soldiers at a major Pakistani army base on a Himalayan glacier close to India on Saturday, military officials said. Prospects for finding survivors seemed slim, given the fiercely inhospitable climate and dangerous terrain.

“We haven’t really been able to recover anyone dead or alive so far,” Major Gen. Athar Abbas, a military spokesman in Islamabad, said more than 12 hours after the avalanche, at the entry to the Siachen Glacier in the northern reaches of the disputed Kashmir region.

At the time of the disaster, the troops were sleeping in a headquarters building now covered with 80 feet of snow, the army said. The military deployed tracking dogs, helicopters and snowmobiles in its search but to little effect, state television reported. A total of 135 people were confirmed missing — 124 troops and 11 civilians.

The base at Gayari, where the avalanche hit, sits at about 15,000 feet, near a border where thousands of Pakistani and Indian troops stand guard across a no man’s land at elevations up to 22,000 feet. The Siachen Glacier often is called the highest battlefield on Earth.

More Pakistani troops have died there because of harsh weather than in combat. Soldiers endure winter temperatures as low as 90 degrees Fahrenheit below zero.

India and Pakistan have fought intermittently at Siachen since 1984, but a cease-fire went into effect in 2003. Before that, more than 2,000 Pakistani and Indian troops died in the mountainous terrain, mostly because of avalanches, frostbite and other weather hazards.

Together, the nuclear-armed nations have about 150 manned outposts along the glacier.

A former Pakistani Army brigadier general, Muhammad Saad, said two Pakistani brigades of three battalions each are stationed in the region. Troop strengths have varied, but each brigade, with support staff, can number up to 3,000 troops.

Previous causes of avalanches, Saad said, include glacial melt and the loud retorts caused by cross-border exchanges of gunfire.

Officials estimate that the cost of maintaining the outposts is $200 million for Pakistan and $300 million for India. The nations have gone to war twice over Kashmir, a source of dispute since the 1947 partition of India.

Special correspondent Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.

Richard Leiby is a senior writer in Post’s Style section. His previous assignments have included Pakistan Bureau Chief, and reporter, columnist and editor in Washington. He joined The Post in 1991.
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