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Army clears roads around snow-bound Pakistan town after deadly blizzard

KULDANA, PAKISTAN (AFP) – Army rescuers yesterday cleared routes around a Pakistan hill town sheltering thousands of tourists after 22 people died in vehicles trapped by heavy snow.

The resort town of Murree, around 70 kilometres northeast of Islamabad, was inundated with tourists and daytrippers last week after unusually heavy snow turned it into a winter wonderland.

But a blizzard from Friday felled trees and blocked narrow roads leading in and out of the town, which clings to steep hills and valleys at an altitude of 2,300 metres.

“It was not snow, and not even heavy snow, it was unprecedented… with four to five feet in few hours,” administrative official in nearby Nathia Gali Tariq Ullah told AFP yesterday.

“(I) never saw such a huge snowstorm in my life. There were strong winds, uprooted trees, avalanches. People around were terrified, each having his or her own account of suffering.”

Officials said nearly 100,000 visitors in thousands of vehicles had thronged the town by Friday, causing an enormous traffic jam even before the blizzard.

Troops using shovels to clear snow from a trapped vehicle. PHOTO: AFP

They said 22 people died in vehicles trapped in the snow overnight on Friday – either from cold, or carbon monoxide poisoning from exhaust fumes generated by drivers running engines to keep warm.

They included 10 children – six who died alongside their mother and father, a senior police officer.

“We are switching on the heater and going to sleep,” Dawn newspaper quoted Assistant Inspector Naveed Iqbal as saying in a final call to his son in the capital.

He was buried late on Saturday alongside his family at a ceremony attended by hundreds of fellow officers.

Yesterday, a steady stream of vehicles and people on foot were making their way out of hard-hit Kuldana, close to Murree.

Many vehicles were stuck by the side of the road, bonnets open, waiting for a jump-start after draining their batteries to run heaters during their ordeal.

Piles of rubbish marked spots where cars had spent the cold night.

Prime Minister Imran Khan said he was shocked and upset by the tragedy, but that the unprecedented snowfall and rush of people “caught district admin unprepared”.

Several Pakistan newspapers, however, excoriated administrators yesterday, noting the country’s weather bureau warned as early as January 6 of the approaching blizzard.

“All concerned authorities are particularly advised to remain ‘ALERT’ during the forecast period,” the National Weather Forecasting Centre said on Thursday, adding “heavy snowfall” could cause road closures in Murree and elsewhere.