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Workers save 500 from avalanche

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 8, 2002

SALANG, Afghanistan -- Bent under heavy winds and laboring to breathe in the frigid, thin air, international teams on Thursday rescued about 500 people trapped by an avalanche of snow. Four people died.

The avalanche roared down the Hindu Kush mountains Wednesday and blocked the Salang tunnel, the world's highest at some 11,000 feet above sea level. The tunnel is on the principal route between Kabul and Afghanistan's north and is a key conduit for aid shipments.

Three people suffocated inside the tunnel and the fourth who died was trapped in a car outside, said United Nations spokesman Yusuf Hassan.

About 190 people trapped inside the tunnel, some 80 miles north of Kabul, were rescued early Thursday, according to Mohammedullah Gulaga, the Afghan coordinator of the rescue efforts.

Some 300 more were later freed from vehicles buried in the snow outside of the tunnel by rescuers from the HALO Trust, a British-based de-mining group that sent armored bulldozers to dig out cars, spokesman Gerhard Zank said.

Temperatures fell to 40 below zero. Eighty-nine people suffering from frostbite and dehydration were evacuated to a field clinic at Jabal Saraj, between Kabul and the tunnel, Zank said. Seven were in serious condition and were flown by helicopter to Kabul.

Rescue teams rushed to Salang on Wednesday, but many were unable to pass through the roads, which were blanketed by huge snow drifts. The de-mining bulldozers were able to drive through the drifts due to their oversized tires, which are covered with thick metal chains.

Teams from the United Nations and the international peacekeeping force also took part in the rescue effort.

Significant snowfalls have hit much of Afghanistan over the past week, precipitation that is much needed in the drought-plagued country but that creates serious problems on the roads.

The bad weather also hampered efforts to learn details of a U.S. missile strike in eastern Afghanistan that may have dealt a blow to the al-Qaida network.

Wazir Khan, a top figure in one of the factions in eastern Paktia province, said the missile fired Monday by a CIA-operated Predator surveillance drone aircraft killed seven suspected al-Qaida members. A U.S. official acknowledged the attack but said it was uncertain whether it killed any leaders of the terrorist network.

Khan said authorities wanted to send a delegation to the site, but were blocked by the weather.

Gen. Tommy Franks, commander in chief of U.S. Central Command, told reporters the missile hit its intended target, but he said bad weather in the Zawar Khili area made it difficult to verify who was killed. He said ground forces may be dispatched to investigate the site.

In other developments:

Stung by criticism that a raid by American commandos last month might have mistakenly killed anti-Taliban troops, Frankssaid that he had ordered his top ground officers to tighten their coordination with Afghan allies to prevent a recurrence.

The commander of the war in Afghanistan said without prejudging the outcome of an investigation into the raid that killed at least 15 Afghans, he had directed commanders to ensure that operations were discussed in advance with forces loyal to the interim Afghan government headed by Hamid Karzai.

The threat of American airstrikes kept a fragile cease-fire in place Thursday as two rival warlords planned to meet in Kabul with interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai over who will become governor of eastern Afghanistan's Paktia province.

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