A search and rescue operation is under way to locate more than 100 Pakistani soldiers buried under Himalayan snow in Pakistani-administered Kashmir after their base was hit by a massive avalanche.
Over 150 soldiers were deployed on Saturday to search in the deep Himalayan snow after the avalanche engulfed the camp in mountainous Gayari sector near Siachen.
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The army has moved in heavy engineering machinery by air from the garrison town of Rawalpindi to aid in the operation.
A team of doctors and paramedics has also been rushed to the high-altitude region, which suffers extreme weather conditions, with temperatures on the Siachen glacier plummeting to as low as minus 70 degrees Celsius (minus 94F) during the winter.
The Pakistan military said in a statement that at least 124 soldiers and 11 civilian contractors were missing after the avalanche engulfed the base near the Siachen glacier in the northern tip of the divided Kashmir region.
The military released the names of the missing in a statement late on Saturday.
“At six o’clock this morning this avalanche hit a [military] headquarters,” Major-General Athar Abbas, the Pakistan military spokesman, said.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Abbas said a rescue operation using helicopters, search dogs and soldiers is under way but warned “it will take days to complete the rescue operations” due to the climate and the difficulty of terrain.
Despite describing the slide as “a massive scale avalanche”, Abbas said Pakistani forces remain hopeful.
“This is an extremely remote region, and it would be difficult to continue the rescue effort at night,” Al Jazeera’s Kamal Hyder reported from Islamabad.
He said that with more than 150 military outposts surrounding the glacier, the Pakistan and Indian sides face not only each other but “also face nature … [on] the highest battleground in the world”.
Shaukat Qadir, a former brigadier in the Pakistani army who has been to Siachen on numerous occasions, told Al Jazeera “this is the biggest casualty that has ever happened [there]”.
“We have fantastic accommodation for the soldiers,” he said. “When you walk on this terrain you never know when it would come down, and certainly you cannot predict an avalanche.”
The Siachen glacier, on the tip of the Kashmir region that both Pakistan and India claim, is home to an estimated 15,000 soldiers from both countries.
Siachen, rising to 6,000 metres above sea level, has seen more soldiers die near the Karakoram base from weather-related incidents than gunfire since 1984.
“The fact of the matter is that 70 per cent of the people have died because of natural causes,” Qadir said, “and I think this is the time we ended this damn conflict, which has absolutely no explanation.
“I can just hope [President Asif Ali] Zardari talks about this with [Indian Prime Minister] Manmohan Singh [on his visit to India on April 8] and settles this issue for both, us and Indians.”