Pakistani officials said that 21 more bodies have been recovered in the avalanche-hit disputed region of Kashmir, bringing the total number of deaths to 160 in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Local residents search for the avalanche victims in the snow in Neelum Valley, in Pakistan-administered Kashmir on January 15, 2020.
Local residents search for the avalanche victims in the snow in Neelum Valley, in Pakistan-administered Kashmir on January 15, 2020. (AFP)

Search teams aided by Pakistani troops pulled out 21 more bodies from homes destroyed by this week's avalanches in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, raising the overall death toll due to severe winter weather to 160 for Pakistan and Afghanistan, officials said on Wednesday.

Rescuers were racing against time to reach scores of people believed still to be trapped inside their homes, buried under avalanches triggered by heavy snowfall in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. With many roads still blocked by snow, authorities were using helicopters to evacuate those injured.

The worst affected area was Kashmir's Neelum Valley, where the 21 bodies were retrieved, said Ahmad Raza Qadri, a minister for disaster management. He said that since Sunday, 76 people have been killed in Pakistan-administered Kashmir in weather-related incidents. Another 45 people were killed in Pakistan's southwestern Balochistan and eastern Punjab provinces.

Frequent avalanches and landslides occur in Kashmir during the winter, often blocking roads and leaving communities isolated.

Authorities have shuttered schools, while several highways and roads were closed across the country's northern mountainous areas, according to officials.

"The severe snowfalls and landslides in AJK have caused misery and deaths," tweeted Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, referring to the part of Kashmir controlled by Islamabad.

Prime Minister Khan flew to Kashmir on Wednesday to visit the avalanche-hit areas.

He visited a military hospital in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, where several people, including women and children, were being treated after being rescued from Neelum Valley and elsewhere.

In Afghanistan, the situation was returning to normal on Wednesday, following days-long heavy snowfall, rains and flash floods that killed 39 people and damaged about 300 homes there since Sunday.

"A cold snap, heavy snowfall and rains that started two weeks ago have caused damage," said Ahmad Tamim Azimi, a spokesman for the Natural Disaster Management Authority.

Most casualties were caused after roofs collapsed under thick snow, he added.

Hardest hit were southern Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul and western Herat provinces.

In Herat, seven people, all members of the same family and including children, died when their roof caved in, Azimi said.

Harsh winters often take a heavy toll in mountainous Afghanistan, and the country remains poor despite billions of dollars in aid from the international community.

In Indian-administered Kashmir, avalanches triggered by heavy snowfall killed at least 12 people, including six soldiers.

Officials said army men and a paramilitary soldier died in two separate avalanches along the highly militarised border dividing the Himalayan territory between India and Pakistan.

"Five army soldiers and a border security force personnel were killed in the snow avalanches on the Line of Control," said Srinagar-based army spokesperson Colonel Rajesh Kalia.

Separately, a top official from Kashmir's civil administration said six people were killed after their house came under a massive snow avalanche in the northern part of the valley that saw heavy snow in recent days.

In India's adjacent state of Himachal Pradesh, an avalanche buried an elderly person alive, while three others died in landslides, officials cited by the Press Trust of India said.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies