Avalanche kills five soldiers as cold snap toll rises to 109
By Jamil Nagri, Tariq Naqash
GILGIT/MUZAFFARABAD: At least 15 more people, including five army soldiers, were killed by avalanches in Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir as the death toll during the current spell of snowfall and showers across the country surged to 109.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Imran Khan arrived at Muzaffarabad where he was briefed by AJK chief secretary Mathar Niaz Rana on the losses and rescue efforts being undertaken in the snowbound valley.
While the Neelum Valley has been reportedly the worst-hit area so far with 74 killings, the land and phone communications of upper areas of Gilgit-Baltistan region remained disconnected on a fourth consecutive day.
In Astore district, officials said, avalanches killed five soldiers, a woman and a child in two different areas besides injuring several people.
All the five army personnel belonged to the corps of engineers, the local administration said. They were hit by an avalanche in Dombabaho area of Astore on Tuesday, the officials said, adding that they were identified as Lance Naik Banaras Iqbal, Lance Naik Abdul Razzaq, SPR Mohammad Rafiq, SPR Shahzad Akram and SPR Ammar Ali. All the five bodies were retrieved and shifted to Gilgit, the officials said.
Avalanches also damaged four houses in the Astore valley, which had recently been hit by a quake.
An avalanche destroyed a house in the Thali area of Qamri town, killing four-year-old Rehmatullah and 19-year-old Zeenat, the local police said. Two other members of their family, Mohammad Sultan and Amir Hayat, were injured in the incident, the officials added.
However, according to the complaints received from locals, the injured couldn’t be shifted to hospitals as some roads had been blocked for the past several days.
According a press release issued by the authorities on Wednesday, Gilgit-Baltistan disaster management authority and district administrations have started clearing roads and rehabilitating telecommunication, electricity and other basic infrastructures across the region.
The Gilgit-Rawalpindi section of the Karakorum Highway has been fully restored, while the Frontier Works Organization (FWO) cleared road at four points by removing debris in Patton, Matta Banda of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Tatta Pani in Diamer.
Gilgit-Ghizer road, too, was reopened to traffic, it added.
However, locals said, hundreds passengers had been stranded on the Gilgit-Skardu road, which had been closed for the past four days. Rajab Ali Qamar from Skardu said around 700 villages had been cut off from rest of the Baltistan division due to heavy snowfall.
According to the local authorities, the region received record snowfall during the past four days. The harsh weather brought life to standstill across GB, they added.
The area received up to one-foot snowfall in parts of Skardu, Shigar, Kharmang, Ghanche, Ghizer, Astore, Nagar, Hunza, Diamer and Gilgit.
Air travel between Islamabad to Skardu as well as Gilgit has already been suspended for nearly a week due to the harsh weather and snow-clad Skardu airport. Heavy snowfall has also affected roads, phone communication and power supply in many parts of the region, making it difficult to gather information from remote areas about the disaster.
According to officials, GB Chief Minister Hafeezur Rehman issued a high alert in all districts of the region due to heavy snowfall. Government employees have been asked to remain on duty with all leaves cancelled by the government.
Meanwhile, the death toll in Neelum Valley swelled to 74 as more deaths were reported from a remote hamlet lying in the closest proximity of the Line of Control.
Raja Shahid Mahmood, Deputy Commissioner of Neelum, said a girl died in Seri village, while other casualties were reported from Chaknaar village in Gurez.
Mohammad Liaquat, a resident of Chaknaar, said they had learnt from military sources that at least 14 people had died in his village. He said: “My wife and four children are in Chaknaar and I do not have any information about their safety.”
Mr Liaquat and several other residents of Chaknaar, who eke out a living in the downstream areas, said they had been waiting at the helipad since morning to be boarded choppers for their hometown, but in vain.
“The authorities should have ensured that we are flown to our area so that we can bury our dead and take care of the survivors, but the whole day was spent in arrangements for the visit of Prime Minister Imran Khan,” they fumed.
PM Khan arrived on a helicopter to express solidarity with the victims and was briefed at the helipad on the losses and rescue work so far undertaken by the authorities.
AJK President Sardar Masood Khan, PM Raja Farooq Haider, Legislative Assembly Speaker Shah Ghulam Qadir, federal Minister for Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan Ali Amin Gandapur and Rawalpindi Corps Commander Lt Gen Azhar Abbas were also present.
Later, the prime minister drove to CMH, where he inquired after the health of three survivors.
Published in Dawn, January 16th, 2020