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Avalanche buries garrison of Pakistani troops

ISLAMABAD — An avalanche Saturday buried alive a garrison of at least 100 Pakistani troops stationed on a glacier high in the Himalayas that has been fought over with India for 30 years.

The avalanche smothered the garrison headquarters, located 16,000 feet high in the Gayari sector of the Siachen Glacier, shortly before six o'clock in the morning, a Pakistani military spokesman said.

The remoteness of the area made it accessible only in French-built, high-altitude helicopters, and it was hours before the first military rescue teams were flown in.

The spokesman, Gen. Athar Abbas, said sniffer dogs, trained to find earthquake victims buried under rubble, were being used to locate the missing soldiers of the Northern Light Infantry regiment. They could number as high as 150, according to some Pakistani television reports.

There were no confirmed reports of casualties, or of survivors being found, by dusk, when helicopter flights and rescue efforts on site were suspended until daybreak.

The Siachen Glacier is located in the Kashmir region, claimed by Pakistan, India and China, and lies at the disputed border of the three countries.

Pakistan and India fought a 1965 war over possession of Kashmir.

Although inhabitable, and therefore not delineated by Pakistan and India, it became notorious as the world's highest battlefield in 1984, after Indian troops occupied its strategic heights at 22,000 feet. There were fierce fighting and artillery exchanges until 1987.

Between them, India and Pakistan station up to 20,000 troops on the Siachen Glacier, but most casualties there are caused by hypothermia.

The conflict, which is set against a unique backdrop of 24,000-feet-plus peaks, including K-2, the world's second highest mountain, was captured in the 2000 Hollywood movie, "Vertical Limit."

Pakistan sought to seize the strategic initiative in the area in 1999, when troops from the Northern Light Infantry — whose garrison was buried by Saturday's avalanche — occupied vacant Indian bunkers at Kargil, cutting off the sole road supplying Indian troops on Siachen.

Militants of the Lashkar-i-Taiba, known as LeT, were also involved in the fighting, which brought India and Pakistan, which both have nuclear weapons, to the verge of all-out war.

The Pakistani troops and militants withdrew, under heavy fire, under a deal negotiated on July 4, 1999, by then-President Bill Clinton.

The Siachen Glacier has been largely peaceable since 2003, when Pakistan and India embarked on a peace process that, by 2007, came close to ending the hostility that has marked their relationship since they gained independence from British colonial rule in 1947.

LeT militants scuppered the process when they launched the November 2007 attacks on Mumbai, India's largest city, killing 166 people in a four-day rampage.

The U.S. Justice Department on Tuesday announced a $10 million reward for information leading to the arrest or conviction of Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the LeT founder, for his alleged role in the Mumbai attacks.

Pakistan said on Wednesday it could not act against Saeed, because the country's fiercely independent courts in 2009 had absolved him of personal involvement in the Mumbai attacks.

Relations between India and Pakistan have gradually improved since last year, when peace talks were tentatively resumed. They have focused on improving bilateral trade, which is subject to restrictions, because India has demanded action against the LeT as a precondition for talks on the countries' political disputes.

However, the peace process would be bolstered by a private visit to India by Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani president, starting Sunday, former diplomats in both countries said.

His stated purpose is a pilgrimage to a Sufi shrine in the western Indian city of Ajmer, but Zardari will also meet Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, for lunch during his stay in the country.

The former diplomats, who have been involved in confidence-building back-door talks, said Zardari would invite Singh to visit Pakistan, and that the Indian prime minister would accept.

(Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent)


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