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Thursday, 7 February, 2002, 17:26 GMT
Eyewitness: Trapped in the Salang Tunnel
Trucks near the Salang Tunnel
The snow left some victims with frostbite

By BBC News Online's Marcus George at the Salang Tunnel

Three weeks after the Salang Tunnel was reopened linking north and south Afghanistan, tragedy has struck with more than 30 cars and trucks becoming stuck in snow storms.

More than 500 passengers were trapped in their cars at blockages on both sides of the tunnel, 100 kilometres north of Kabul, as strong winds created impassable snow drifts.

Woman and child
People were desperate to escape in vans

Some walked for several kilometres in the sub-zero temperatures, to find help and shelter.

Aid agencies collaborated with the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) to clear the road and bring much-needed food supplies to the exhausted travellers.

But the cold was too much for some.

A 12-year-old boy died from the intense cold on the north side of the tunnel, according to reports at the scene.

It is now known that four people have died.

Prayers of thanks

As the wind tore through the mountain valleys kicking up snow, minibuses freed from the storm made a cautious way down in temperatures which had plummeted to -15 degrees.

Vans were stacked with people as the passengers said prayers and thanked aid workers for saving them.

"We were facing death," said 52-year-old Mohammad Bashir. "The difficulties were so great that we didn't think we would survive.

"But God protected us and vital help came from the Red Cross and other agencies and we were saved

"We were going north and got stuck when the snow came. That was two days ago. There was no way out for us and no way to turn round.

"A Mujahideen commander gave all the help he could, but this was not nearly enough to help us," Mr Bashir said.

'So scared'

Abdul Raouf had to look after his father who became sick during the night.

"We left the car running all night to keep warm. We were so scared we would die and we hoped and prayed that everything would be alright," he said.

An ambulance
Ambulances had problems getting to the tunnel

Halo Trust demining operations came to a halt as its ambulances transported freed passengers from the blocked area to an emergency post one hour away.

Serious cases were being transported from there to the Afghan capital, Kabul, by ISAF helicopters.

The International Red Cross and Medecins Sans Frontieres were also working to liberate people from the huge drifts of snow.

MSF doctor Nils Hennig said: "We brought some food because they hadn't eaten anything since yesterday.

"We're looking for the severe cases, people who have frostbite and are weak," he added.

"Some of them have suffered from frostbite on their legs, hands and arms. They are totally exhausted."

Relief from drought

The two-kilometre long Salang Tunnel was built by the Russians in the 1960s.

It reopened in January after battles between the Northern Alliance and the Taleban in the late 90s left it blocked by thousands of tonnes of concrete rubble.

The crisis echoes the 1982 Salang fire, caused by an exploding gas cylinder, which resulted in the death of over 400 people.

The increasing snowfall this year is a welcome sign after four years of drought.

But the snow has blocked vital aid supplied to vulnerable communities in the west and brought a near disaster in the east.

With this in mind, Afghans will be looking forward to a new spring.

See also:

06 Feb 02 | South Asia
UN envoy urges larger Afghan force
06 Feb 02 | South Asia
Afghan aid stranded by heavy snow
01 Feb 02 | South Asia
Snow flurries in Kabul bring hope
21 Jan 02 | South Asia
Inside the Salang Tunnel
18 Dec 01 | Media reports
Resurrection for Afghan tunnel
30 Jan 02 | South Asia
Eyewitness: Afghan refugees' hunger
04 Feb 02 | South Asia
Hunger and death in Afghan villages
28 Jan 02 | South Asia
Bush pledges Afghan aid boost
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