Pakistani Troops Dig for 135 Missing in Avalanche

By ZARAR KHAN | April 9, 2012

Rescue workers used bulldozers Sunday to dig through huge banks of snow following a massive avalanche a day earlier that engulfed a military complex and buried at least 135 people, most of them soldiers, in a mountain battleground close to the Indian border.

More than 24 hours after the disaster at the entrance to the Siachen Glacier, no bodies have yet been recovered, military officials said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The army said 240 troops and civilians worked at the scene Sunday with the aid of sniffer dogs and heavy machinery, some of which was flown in on military aircraft. They struggled to dig through some 25 meters (80 feet) of snow, boulders, mud and slush that buried the rear headquarters building in the Gayari sector early Saturday morning.

Pakistani army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani visited the site Sunday to supervise rescue operations. At least 124 soldiers from the 6 Northern Light Infantry Battalion and 11 civilian contractors are missing.

The U.S. expressed its condolences and offered to help with the search and rescue operation.

The accident in Siachen, which is on the northern tip of the divided Kashmir region claimed by both India and Pakistan, highlighted the risks of deploying troops to one of the most inhospitable places on earth.

The thousands of soldiers from both nations stationed there brave viciously cold temperatures, altitude sickness, high winds and isolation for months at a time. Troops have been posted at elevations of up to 6,700 meters (22,000 feet) and have skirmished intermittently since 1984, though the area has been quiet since a cease-fire in 2003. The glacier is known as the world’s highest battlefield.

The headquarters in Gayari, situated at around 4,572 meters (15,000 feet), is the main gateway through which troops and supplies pass on their way to other more remote outposts in the sector. It is situated in a valley between two high mountains, close to a military hospital, according to an officer who was stationed there in 2003.

More soldiers have died from the weather than combat on the glacier, which was uninhabited before troops moved there.

Conflict there began in 1984 when India occupied the heights of the 78-kilometer (49-mile)-long glacier, fearing Pakistan wanted to claim the territory. Pakistan also deployed its troops. Both armies remain entrenched despite the cease-fire, costing the poverty-stricken countries many millions of dollars each year.

Pakistan and India have fought three wars since the partition of the subcontinent on independence from Britain in 1947. Two of the wars have been over Kashmir, which both claim in its entirety.

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