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Rescuers Clearing Roads To Pakistani Resort Town After Deadly Blizzard

Vehicles stuck under fallen trees are seen on a snowy road, in Murree, Pakistan, on January 8.
Vehicles stuck under fallen trees are seen on a snowy road, in Murree, Pakistan, on January 8.

Pakistani rescuers were working to clear routes to a snow-bound resort town sheltering thousands of tourists on January 9, a day after 22 people died in vehicles trapped by heavy snow.

The resort town of Murree, which clings to steep hills and valleys about 70 kilometers northeast of Islamabad, was inundated with tourists last week after unusually heavy snow.

On January 7, the weather worsened -- felling trees and blocking the narrow roads leading in and out of the town, which is at an altitude of 2,300 meters.

"I've never seen such a huge snowstorm in my life," said Tariq Ullah, an administrative official in nearby Nathia Gali. " It was unprecedented...with four to five feet in a few hours."

"There were strong winds, uprooted trees, avalanches," Ullah said. "People around were terrified, each having his or her own account of suffering."

Officials said nearly 100,000 visitors in thousands of vehicles had traveled to the town by January 7, causing an enormous traffic jam even before the blizzard.

They said 22 people, including 10 children, died in vehicles trapped in the snow overnight -- either from cold or carbon monoxide poisoning from exhaust fumes generated by drivers running engines to keep warm.

Prime Minister Imran Khan said he was shocked by the tragedy, adding that the blizzard and the rush of people "caught district admin unprepared."

Pakistan's National Weather Forecasting Center bureau had warned on January 6 of the approaching blizzard. It had advised authorities to "remain 'ALERT' during the forecast period," adding that "heavy snowfall" could cause road closures in and around Murree.

Hasaan Khawar, a spokesman for the Punjab provincial government, promised there would be an investigation.

"Our first priority was rescue, which is ongoing, then relief," Khawar tweeted on January 9. "Then a high-level inquiry will be launched and if there is any kind of negligence, then action will be taken against all those involved."

The Pakistan military's public relations department said troops had pulled all survivors from cars trapped along the route to Murree and taken them to shelters set up in the town.

But it said more than 1,000 abandoned vehicles along the route were hampering efforts by bulldozers to clear snow from the roads.

In some areas, Pakistani soldiers were using shovels to clear snow on January 9.

With reporting by AFP and Dawn