A MASSIVE avalanche buried 117 Pakistani soldiers in the mountainous Kashmir region close to the border with India yesterday.
No survivors have yet been found despite a huge rescue operation, after a wall of snow at the entrance to the Siachen Glacier engulfed a huge military complex.
“We are waiting for news and keeping our fingers crossed,” said army spokesman major-general Athar Abbas.
Hundreds of troops, sniffer dogs and mechanical equipment were deployed but were struggling to make much headway following the avalanche, which crashed down on to the headquarters’ building in the Gayari sector early yesterday, burying it under around 70ft of snow.
The region is prone to avalanches. However, the number of casualties in this latest incident reflects the fact that the camp was considered to be in a safe location. Previous tragedies involving troops have tended to occur in “forward bases” at higher altitudes, where only ten or 20 troops were involved.
“It’s on a massive scale,” said Abbas. “Everything is completely covered.”
He added: “This happened at six o’clock. These avalanches usually happen at night. It took them by surprise.”
Siachen is on the northern tip of the divided Kashmir region claimed by both India and Pakistan.
The accident highlighted the risks of deploying troops to one of the most inhospitable places on earth – dubbed the world’s highest battleground.
The thousands of troops from both nations stationed there brave viciously cold temperatures, altitude sickness, high winds and isolation for months at a time. Troops have been deployed at elevations of up to 6,700m and have skirmished intermittently since 1984, though the area has been quiet since a ceasefire was called in 2003.
The headquarters in Gayari, situated at around 4,572m, is the main gateway through which troops and supplies pass on their way to other, more remote outposts in the sector. It is situated in a valley between two high mountains, close to a military hospital, according to an officer who was stationed there in 2003.
“I can’t comprehend how an avalanche can reach that place,” said the officer. “It was supposed to be safe.”
Pakistan’s prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani expressed his shock at the incident, which he said “would in no way undermine the high morale of soldiers and officers”.
An avalanche killed 24 Pakistani troops in 2010 – this is believed to be the heaviest ever loss of life in such an incident. More soldiers have died from the weather than combat on the glacier, which was uninhabited before troops were sent in.
Conflict in the area began in 1984 when India occupied the heights of the 78km-long glacier, fearing Pakistan wanted to claim the territory. Pakistan also deployed its own troops.
Both armies remain entrenched despite the ceasefire, costing the poverty-stricken countries many millions of pounds each year.
Pakistan and India have fought three wars since the partition of the subcontinent on independence from Britain in 1947. Two of the wars have been over Kashmir, which both claim in its entirety.
However, there is a tentative peace process under way, with Pakistan’s president Asif Ali Zardari scheduled to meet Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh today, the first visit to India by a Pakistani head of state since 2005.
The partition of the former princely state of Kashmir has neither been to the satisfaction of the two countries nor to the Kashmiris themselves.
Failure to agree on the status of the territory by diplomatic means has brought India and Pakistan to war on a number of occasions, and ignited an insurgency that shows no signs of abating.
The region is divided among three countries in a territorial dispute: Pakistan controls the north-west portion (Northern Areas and Azad Kashmir), India controls the central and southern portion (Jammu and Kashmir) and Ladakh, and China controls the north-eastern portion (Aksai Chin and the Trans-Karakoram Tract).
India controls the majority of the Siachen Glacier itself, including the Saltoro Ridge passes, whereas Pakistan controls the lower territory just southwest of the Saltoro Ridge.
Though these regions are in practice administered by their respective claimants, neither India nor Pakistan has formally recognised the accession of the areas claimed by the other side.
India claims those areas, including the parts “ceded” to China by Pakistan in the Trans-Karakoram Tract in 1963, are a part of its territory, while Pakistan claims the entire region, excluding Aksai Chin and Trans-Karakoram Tract.
The two countries declared war over the territory on numerous occasions. The Indo-Pakistani War of 1947 established the rough boundaries that exist today, with Pakistan holding about one-third of Kashmir, and India one-half, with a dividing line of control established by the United Nations. The Indo-Pakistani War of 1965 resulted in a stalemate and a UN-negotiated ceasefire.
In 2005, a massive earthquake near the Kashmiri city of Muzzaffarabad registering 7.6 on the Richter scale erupted, killing an estimated 75,000 people.
Separately in Kashmir yesterday, shops and businesses have been shut during a strike to protest against the prison sentence given to a Kashmir-born man in the US who was accused of working for Pakistan’s spy agency with the aim of influencing Washington officials and politicians.
A court in Virginia sentenced Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai of the Kashmiri American Council to two years in prison on 30 March. He admitted he concealed financial links to Pakistan’s spy agency while he presented himself as an independent voice on Kashmir’s behalf.
Yesterday’s strike was called by separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani who criticised the US court ruling as extreme. Public transport was off the roads and schools were closed in Srinagar, the main city in Kashmir.