Zardari calls off visit to avalanche site

Islamabad: Nine days after 138 people were buried by an avalanche at a Pakistani army camp in the Siachen sector, rescuers continued their search amidst harsh weather that forced President Asif Ali Zardari to call off a visit to the site today.

The search operation at Gyari was continuing round the clock "against heavy odds" and amidst "very harsh" weather that was posing serious challenges to men and machines, the Pakistani military said in a statement.

The search teams had made controlled use of explosives in digging a tunnel through the compacted snow to reach a building where people were trapped by the avalanche. Teams of German and Swiss rescuers were helping the troops in analysing data to locate the trapped men.

President Zardari had to call off a planned visit to Gyari today due to unsuitable weather conditions, presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar said.

The President had wanted to go to the Siachen sector to express solidarity with the troops who were hit by the avalanche. "However, he was advised by the authorities that severe weather conditions in the area were not suitable for travelling," Babar said.

Last week, a fresh snow-slide had created difficulties for troops conducting the search at Gyari, the location of the battalion headquarters that was buried under 80 feet of snow on April 7.

The military had earlier said that search teams had focussed on six "priority points" and excavated over 100 feet at two points in their search for 127 soldiers of the Northern Light Infantry and 11 civilians who were buried by the avalanche.

Over a week after the avalanche, search teams have found no trace of the buried men. The avalanche covered an area of one square kilometre and buried the men under about 80 feet of snow. More than 450 rescuers have been working in sub-zero temperatures at the site though experts say there is no chance of finding survivors.

Indian and Pakistani troops have been engaged in a standoff on the Siachen glacier since 1984. The guns have largely been silent since late 2003, when the two countries put in place a ceasefire along the frontiers in Jammu and Kashmir, and more troops have died due to the adverse weather than combat.