KABUL – Helicopters ferried rescuers to and bodies away from the site of a massive avalanches that blocked an important mountain pass north of Kabul as the death toll soared Wednesday to 166, officials said. Hundreds more remained trapped in snowbound cars.
Afghan army troops dug through huge snowdrifts trying to rescue people from buried vehicles in the Salang Pass, a key road that connects the Afghan capital with the north.
The 3.5 miles of road that were subsumed in the avalanches have been cleared of snow, but are littered with abandoned or snow-packed cars that still make much of it impassable, said the public works minister, Suharab Ali Safari.
Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary said rescuers have recovered 166 bodies from the Salang Pass, 70 miles north of Kabul, over the past two days.
Some of the victims were found frozen to death inside their vehicles, while in other cases, their bodies were strewn along the road, he said.
Bashary said late Wednesday that the rescue operation was "95 percent over," suggesting authorities did not expected further significant increases in the death toll.
President Hamid Karzai expressed his sorrow for the increasing death toll in a statement.
More than two dozen avalanches — which were triggered Monday — poured tons of snow and ice on the 12,700-feet-high pass. The 1.6 mile-long Salang Tunnel, a Soviet-built landmark dating from the 1960s through the Hindu Kush mountains, was cut off, with dozens of cars, buses and trucks jammed inside.
"The avalanche was very strong. It pushed the cars 200 yards away from the road," said Safari, the public works minister.
At a news conference in Kabul, Bashary said ambulances, bulldozers and other road-clearing equipment were now able to get to the site. About 2,600 people have been rescued so far, he said.
Some 400 police, along with 100 local volunteers, have been involved in the frantic effort to dig out survivors in the last 24 hours, he said.
Bashary said 135 bodies have been taken to Parwan province to the north while the remainder were taken to Baglan province in the south.
Rescuers, who were able to take advantage of clear and sunny weather, reached dozens more of the stranded Wednesday morning, including seven children whose mother had died.
Emergency rescue workers said among the dozens of vehicles stuck in the high drifts of snow were two buses. In one bus, at least 15 people were found dead.
On Tuesday, the Defense Ministry said that Afghan forces had managed to evacuate more than 400 of the injured, with 180 taken by coalition helicopters to Bagram Airbase for medical treatment, said Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak.
Some 500 Afghan soldiers were also mobilized to join the police and others in rescue efforts. The international coalition contributed four Chinook helicopters, while the army sent two choppers, several ambulances and several bulldozers, the Afghan National Army said.