At least 21 dead in vehicles trapped by Pakistan snowstorm


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Islamabad (AFP) – At least 21 people have died in a massive traffic jam caused by tens of thousands of visitors thronging a Pakistani town on a hill to see unusually heavy snowfall, authorities said on Saturday.

Police reported that at least six people froze to death in their car, while it was not immediately clear whether others died of asphyxiation after inhaling fumes from the snowdrift.

Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid said the army had mobilized to clear the roads and rescue thousands of people still trapped near Murree, about 70 kilometers (45 miles) northeast of the country. capital, Islamabad.

A video shared on social media showed cars packed bumper-to-bumper, with three-foot-tall (three-foot) piles of snow on their roofs.

“People are facing a terrible situation,” Usman Abbasi, a tourist trapped in the city where heavy snow was still falling, told AFP by telephone.

For days, Pakistani social media is replete with photos and videos of people playing in the snow around Murree, a picturesque seaside resort built by the British in the 19th century as a sanatorium for its colonial troops.

The office of the chief minister of Punjab province said Murree had been declared a “disaster area” and urged people to stay away.

Prime Minister Imran Khan said he was shocked and upset by the tragedy.

“Unprecedented snowfall and a rush of ppl proceeding without checking the weather conditions caught the district administrator off guard,” he tweeted.

“Ordered an investigation and put in place strict regulations to ensure the prevention of such tragedies.”

Traffic warning

Authorities warned last weekend that too many vehicles were trying to enter Murree, but that failed to deter hordes of day-trippers from the capital.

“It is not only the tourists, but the local population are also facing serious problems,” tourist Abbasi told AFP.

“Gas cylinders are depleted and potable water is not available in most areas – it is frozen or the water pipes have been damaged due to severe cold.”

He said hotels in the city were running low on food and mobile phone services were spotty.

The town of about 30,000 people clings to the sides of steep hills and valleys and is served by narrow roads that are frequently blocked even in good weather.

Sheikh Rashid said residents had sheltered people trapped in the city and provided blankets and food for those they could reach on the outskirts.

Authorities said schools and government buildings welcomed those who could get to the city from blocked roads.

Helicopters were also on standby when the weather cleared.

Rescue 1122, the Pakistani emergency service, has released a list of 21 people who have been confirmed dead.

It included a policeman, his wife and their six children.

Hasaan Khawar, a spokesperson for the Punjab government, said they were frozen to death in a car bomb.

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