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Afghanistan avalanche: vital pass remains closed as rescue continues

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Musadeq Sadeq/AP

(Read caption) Members of the Afghan army search an overturned car, looking for avalanche victims in Salang Pass, 71 miles north of Kabul, Afghanistan, on Wednesday. At least 167 were killed by Monday's avalanches, and some 3,000 have been rescued.

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A vital link between two of Afghanistan's largest cities remains closed following avalanches Monday that ranked among the country's worst natural disasters.

At least 167 people died when a series of avalanches cascaded down the slopes of the famed Salang Pass, a high-altitude road connecting the capital with the thriving northern city of Mazar-e Sharif.

While plows have cleared the road, the pass remains closed to regular traffic to prioritize emergency vehicles. Some 3,000 people have been rescued so far from the pass.

Much of the road actually has avalanche protection either in the form of a stretch of 1.6 miles of tunnels or snow roofs, but there are open, high-elevation areas as well.

The Soviets helped build the pass in the 1960s and subsequently lost many soldiers there to the forces of mujahideen commander Ahmad Shah Masood. In the late 1990s, his retreating armies blocked the tunnel to stymie Taliban infiltration into his northern redoubt. Soon after the Taliban ouster, international donors rehabilitated the tunnel. The resurgent Taliban have now isolated Kabul from most cities of significance, with the exception of Jalalabad to the east, and Mazar-e Sharif via the Salang Pass.

I drove through the pass this summer -- or rather, my Afghan driver did, honking enthusiastically and narrowly dodging oncoming trucks in the long, dark tunnels. Civilization faded down to a few isolated mud-wall castles as we approached the 11,000-foot pass from Kabul. Engine trouble, combined with Afghanistan's ubiquitous dust and the thin air, sent us creeping along the road at no more than 10 miles an hour.

Once through the tunnels, however, we hurtled rapidly down into the heart of Baghlan Province. The moonscape instantly changed to a lush green, thanks to rivers flowing down this side of the Hindu Kush mountains. Baghlan was once among the safest provinces in Afghanistan, but over the past year a spike in violence there has worried officials about the lengthening arm of the insurgency.

It's been a particularly deadly eight days of avalanches across southern Central Asia. Last week, an avalanche killed eight people, including three foreigners, in Iran. Then, an avalanche near a popular ski resort in Kashmir killed 17 Indian soldiers. Subsequent avalanches in the heavily militarized state on Tuesday and Thursday killed another four soldiers.

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The Indian media have begun to raise questions about whether some of these deaths could have been averted:

The Monday tragedy that left 17 soldiers dead and 18 critically wounded at Khilanmarg, about 5 km from Gulmarg, could have been averted had the Army and officials at the Army’s High Altitude Warfare School (HAWS) taken the warnings of its Snow Avalanche Study Establishment (SASE) unit seriously…. Defence spokesperson Lt Col J S Brar confirmed that the SASE had issued warnings. He, however, said it was a routine exercise and no specific warning was issued to the Army.


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