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Avalanches Kill 225 in Kashmir

300 People Missing in Region's Heaviest Snow in 40 Years

By Fayaz Kabli
Thursday, February 24, 2005; Page A16

WALTANGO, India, Feb. 23 -- Villagers and soldiers in Kashmir searched for victims Wednesday following a series of avalanches that killed 225 people. Nearly 300 people were missing after the heaviest snow in more than 40 years triggered avalanches that swept away hundreds of homes and blanketed the Himalayan region.

Rescuers dug through the snow and found more than 100 bodies in Waltango, a village in the foothills of the Pir Panjal mountains that was flattened by an avalanche Sunday.

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"A mountain of snow came down with a roar and swept everything which came in its way, including my wife and children. I don't know why I'm alive," said Ghulam Rasool, a resident of Waltango.

Another villager, Bashir Ahmad, wept as he described what happened. "My children were reading their schoolbooks when the avalanche hit at jet speed," he said.

His 10-year-old son was found about 500 yards from their home.

Residents of one village dug mass graves to bury dozens of dead. Some victims lay in a mosque while many more were lined up outside, shrouded by white sheets.

But in the village of Kapran, residents said bodies could not be buried because the snow was too deep. "Piles of bodies are lying on the snow. We have no place to bury them," said Mohammad Jabar Shah, a villager.

Military officials said they expected more rough weather and urged people living on high ground to move out before more snow fell.

Army officials said helicopters were dropping food and blankets to snowbound villages and soldiers and civilians stranded on a mountain road that connects the Kashmir Valley with the rest of India. Snow was 70 feet deep in some places.

The Indian military has a large presence in Kashmir because it is fighting an insurgency by local separatists and Pakistani militants.

Gen. J.J. Singh, the army chief, said the military would provide snowmobiles and officers from the High Altitude Warfare School to get help to remote villages.

"In certain areas, villages have been completely wiped out. We will establish temporary camps of snow tents so that people are shielded from the cold," he said.

Singh, Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee and the leader of the ruling Congress Party, Sonia Gandhi, visited Kashmir on Wednesday to assess the damage.

Officials said it was unlikely anymore survivors would be found.

"After three days of being buried under snow, the chances of survival are very low. Those who have been rescued suffer from cold injuries," said Lt. Col. V.K. Batra, an army spokesman.

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