Page last updated at 16:52 GMT, Thursday, 11 February 2010

Hope fades for Afghanistan avalanche victims

Overturned coach on the Salang Pass
The pass remains littered with abandoned vehicles

Officials in Afghanistan say that they do not expect to find more survivors of avalanches which have killed at least 169 people in the country's north-east.

Sniffer dogs and satellite imagery have pinpointed more vehicles buried deep in the deep mountain gorge where the avalanches happened, officials say.

But fresh snowfall and darkened skies brought a halt to rescue efforts in the Salang Pass on Thursday.

Officials insist the operation "is not yet finished".

The area has been hit by more than a dozen avalanches since Monday.

Correspondents say that it has been one of the country's worst natural disasters.

Metal detectors

"Today we have taken out three bodies - a woman and two men, bringing to 169 the total number of bodies so far, with 130 injured," Parwan province Public Health Director Mohammad Qasim Sayedi told the AFP news agency.

Map of Salang Pass

Scores of vehicles which could contain more bodies remain buried beneath massive snow floes, the interior ministry said.

"We're not clear yet on how many cars are still under the snow, but police have been working on recovery since yesterday [Wednesday] and are hoping to bring the operation to an end soon," ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary told AFP.

Defence ministry official Ahmad Zia Aftali said that the government now planned to ask the international coalition for additional equipment, including metal detectors, to aid the search. He said they did not expect to find anyone still alive.

The ferocity of the avalanches was so great that windows of cars and buses were smashed while some tumbled into the valley below, officials say.

February 19-20 2005: At least 250 people killed in avalanches after heavy snowfall in Indian-administered Kashmir
January 16 1995: At least 200 people killed in avalanches in Indian-administered Kashmir triggered by a snow storm and strong winds
September 20 2002: At least 125 people killed when the Kolka glacier collapses on the village of Nijni Karmadon in North Ossetia, Russia
March 24 1996: 56 people killed when avalanche hits main road between Tibet and Sichuan in China
February 23 1999: Avalanche hits Austrian village of Galtur, killing 31 people
Source: News agencies

Many of the dead were killed as their vehicles plunged down the mountainsides, while others perished in the freezing conditions.

Rescuers are using bulldozers, pick axes and shovels in the search for survivors.

The highway that winds through the mountainside remains littered with abandoned or snow-packed cars.

Officials say that although the road has now been cleared, it remains closed to the public to allow for emergency efforts.

About 3,000 people have been rescued so far.

The area is often affected by heavy snow and has been hit by avalanches in the past, the BBC's Martin Patience in Kabul says.

The road through the Salang Pass is the only major route over the Hindu Kush mountains linking southern Afghanistan to the north and Central Asia that remains open throughout the year.

Reaching 3,400m (11,000 ft) at the pass, the road is one of the highest in the world. It was finished in the 1960s with Soviet help.

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