ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - An avalanche engulfed a Pakistani army battalion headquarters near the Indian border on Saturday, burying 124 soldiers and 11 civilians, with no sign of survivors 17 hours later, the military said.
The snow left by the avalanche was up to 80 feet deep over an area a kilometre wide, state television quoted army spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas as saying.
The victims were trapped in one of the most unforgiving environments on earth, at an altitude of 15,000 feet near the Siachen Glacier in the Karakoram mountain range.
The area is also one of the world’s most militarily tense frontiers, where the Indian and Pakistani armies have confronted each other over disputed territory for decades.
Eleven civilian employees of the military were buried under the snow along with the soldiers of the 6 Northern Light Infantry Battalion, the military said in a statement.
“This battalion headquarter (has been) situated at same place for the last 20 years and no incident of this nature has happened,” it said.
Helicopters were deployed in a rescue operation. Troops used sniffer dogs to comb the area, said the military. Heavy engineering equipment was flown to the site from the garrison city of Rawalpindi, near the capital Islamabad.
“This happened at six o’clock. These avalanches usually happen at night. It took them by surprise,” Abbas told Reuters.
The army listed the names of the missing soldiers and civilians on its public relations website.
The military has ruled Pakistan for more than half of its 64 year history, setting foreign and security policy even when civilian governments are in power, as is the case now.
Siachen is in the northern part of the Himalayan region of Kashmir. The no-man‘s-land of Siachen is 20,000 feet above sea level.
Military experts say the inhospitable climate and avalanche-prone terrain have claimed more lives than gunfire.
Muslim-majority Kashmir is at the heart of hostility between India and Pakistan and was the cause of two of their three full-scale wars.`
Siachen has been described as the world’s highest battlefield. Indian and Pakistani troops have fought at altitudes of over 20,000 feet in temperatures of minus 60 degrees Celsius.
Between 10,000 and 20,000 Indian and Pakistani troops are stationed in the mountains above the glacier.
A tentative peace process is under way, with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari scheduled to meet Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Sunday, the first visit to India by a Pakistani head of state since 2005.
Additional reporting by Rebecca Conway; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Andrew Roche