Officials on Sunday continued to work on clearing snow from roads in and around Murree a day after 22 people, including women and children, died in their vehicles trapped by heavy snowfall.
In a tweet, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister for Political Communication Dr Shahbaz Gill said that all major arteries to Murree had been cleared for traffic.
"Around 600 to 700 cars were evacuated from the area last night," he said, adding that Rawalpindi police, the district administration and Pakistan Army soldiers worked through the night.
"Police officials are present on the roads leading to Murree from Islamabad and Rawalpindi. The roads will remain closed for today," he said.
Providing an update on the rescue operation, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) on Sunday said "all main communication arteries have been cleared for all types of move."
The Kuldana-Barian road has also been cleared, according to the statement, which said after the clearance of main roads, army engineers were now focusing on road links.
"Relief camps/medical facilities are fully operating and army transport is plying for moving of stranded tourists to Rawalpindi/Islamabad," it added.
Meanwhile, Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar ordered a high-level inquiry into the tragic incident and formed a committee headed by the Punjab additional chief secretary (home), tasking it to submit its report within seven days.
The chief minister, who issued the directives while chairing a meeting in Gharial, said indiscriminate action would be taken against those responsible for negligence in the light of the report of the inquiry committee.
Buzdar also announced financial assistance of Rs17.6 million for the heirs of those who lost their lives in the blizzard.
He told the meeting that the financial aid was not a cure for grief "but we share the pain of the bereaved families".
'Murree to be made a district'
The meeting also decided that the hill station of Murree would be elevated to the status of a district.
"In this regard, suggestions have been sought from the chief secretary and senior member Board of Revenue," the chief minister told the meeting.
Buzdar also approved the establishment of two new police stations in Murree, while officers of the ranks of additional deputy commissioner and superintendent of police will be posted in the area with immediate effect.
The chief minister said stern measures would be taken to effectively control the flow of tourists into Murree.
He also directed officials to take action against hotels for overcharging visitors who were stuck due to the snowstorm.
Mobile operators offer free calling in Murree and Galiat
In view of the emergency situation, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority announced that people present in Murree and Galiat areas with no mobile balance had immediately been provided with free on-net calling facility.
According to a statement issued by the PTA, cellular mobile operators have extended free calling facility on their own networks to users with zero balance stranded in Galiat, on the authority's directions.
"PTA has also directed all telecom operators to ensure uninterrupted services to users and keep enough backup arrangements in case of power outages," it said.
'Never saw such a huge snowstorm in my life'
An administrative official in Nathia Gali was shocked to see such an "unprecedented" snowstorm in the area.
“It was not snow, and not even heavy snow, it was unprecedented... with four to five feet in few hours,” Tariq Ullah, an administrative official in nearby Nathia Gali, told AFP.
“(I) never saw such a huge snowstorm in my life. There were strong winds, uprooted trees, avalanches. People around were terrified, each having his or her own account of suffering.”
Authorities have also promised an investigation into the incident.
“Our first priority was rescue, which is ongoing, then relief,” Hasaan Khawar, spokesman for the Punjab provincial government, said in a video on his Twitter page on Sunday.
“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.”
'Hotels exploited the tragedy'
Many tourists complained on social media on Sunday that Murree hoteliers and guest-house owners had compounded the problem by price gouging, prompting stranded people to spend the night in their cars rather than pay for a room.
“Things would have been different if local people and hotels were cooperative, but the reputation and conduct of the local people of Murree are very bad in this respect,” a senior government official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
There were also reports, however, of locals throwing open their homes to stranded tourists and offering food and blankets to those caught in the open.
Meanwhile, Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar surveyed the snow-affected areas from his helicopter and also reviewed relief and rescue work.
According to the Chief Minister's Office, the relief commissioner and the senior member Board of Revenue briefed Buzdar on relief and rescue work.
He was also accompanied by Punjab Law Minister Basharat Raja, Special Assistant to the Chief Minister on Information and Special Initiatives Hassan Khawar, the chief secretary and the ICP.
More than 300 people provided medical care: ISPR
In an update shared late night on Saturday, the ISPR said that more than 300 people had been provided medical care by a team of army doctors and paramedics.
Meals were served to more than 1,000 stranded people in Jhika Gali, Kashmiri Bazar, Lower Topa and Kuldana, the statement said.
"Stranded people have been accommodated and provided shelter with hot meal[s] and tea at Military College Murree, Supply Depot, Army Public School and Army Logistics School Kuldana," it added.
Tragedy befalls Murree
A day earlier, the army and the district administration had launched a massive operation to rescue stranded tourists in and around Murree.
To enjoy snowfall, tens of thousands of people thronged Punjab’s hill town of Murree but a large number of vehicles stranded in snow on Friday night and 22 people died. Eight of them froze to death in their cars and others probably died from asphyxiation after inhaling exhaust fumes in snow-bound vehicles.
On Saturday morning, the Punjab government declared the area in and around Murree calamity-hit area. The website of the National Weather Forecasting Centre said heavy snowfall was expected in the area until Sunday afternoon.
Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed sorrow and grief over the tragedy, ordered an inquiry into the incident and asked the authorities concerned to put in place strong regulation to ensure prevention of such tragedy.
In a tweet, the prime minister said, “Shocked and upset at tragic deaths of tourists on road to Murree. Unprecedented snowfall and rush of people proceeding without checking weather conditions caught district admin unprepared. Have ordered inquiry and putting in place strong regulation to ensure prevention of such tragedies.”
The Punjab chief minister imposed state of emergency in hospitals, police stations, administration offices and Rescue 1122 service, while Pakistan Army troops reached to help with rescue work.
Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, in a video message, said tourists had flocked to the hill station in such large numbers for the first time in the last 15 to 20 years which created a crisis.
He said residents of Murree provided food and blankets to stranded tourists, adding that the administration had closed all routes to the hill station and was now allowing only vehicles taking food and blankets for stranded people.
The meteorological department recorded 32 inches’ snowfall in the hill town during the last two days. “It is not unusual snowfall in the area as in the winter, an average 64-inche snowfall is recorded in Murree,” said Irfan Virik, deputy director of meteorological department while talking to Dawn.
He said that meteorological department had issued weather advisory and warned the departments concerned.
Additional reporting by Javed Hussain in Islamabad.