ISLAMABAD: An avalanche smashed into a Pakistan army camp Saturday burying at least 100 soldiers in a remote area billed as the world's highest battleground, with no sign of survivors over 12 hours later.
Troops with sniffer dogs, aided by helicopters, were frantically trying to find signs of life in the deep snow after the avalanche engulfed the camp in mountainous Gayari, Siachen, in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.
A team of doctors and paramedics also rushed to the high-altitude militarised region, which is close to the de facto border with India and where temperatures plummet to minus 70 degrees Celsius (minus 94F).
“More than 100 soldiers of NLI (Northern Light Infantry) including a colonel were trapped when the avalanche hit a military camp,” army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told AFP.
He later added that despite hours of searching and contrary to local media reports, no bodies or survivors had been found.
“It's too early to say anything,” he replied when asked about the chances of finding anyone alive after more than 12 hours. “The rescue operation is under way.” The avalanche struck early in the morning, a military statement said, raising the possibility that the buried soldiers were asleep at the time.
India in 1984 occupied the key areas on the Siachen glacier, including the heights, and Pakistan immediately responded by deploying its own forces. They fought a fierce battle in 1987, raising fears of all-out conflict.
The glacier is over 6,300 metres (20,800 feet) high, but despite its limited strategic importance both countries have spent heavily to keep a military presence there.
India reportedly forks out more than 40 million rupees ($800,000) daily on its Siachen deployment -- a figure that does not include additional wages and bonuses.
Experts have previously said that India has around 5,000 troops on the glacier, while Pakistan has less than half that number. The harsh weather and the altitude claim many more lives than actual fighting.
State-run Pakistan television said rescuers were facing difficulties getting heavy machinery to the far-flung and deeply inhospitable area.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani expressed his deep shock at the potentially heavy loss of life.
“The incident in no way would undermine the high morale of soldiers and officers,” Gilani said in a statement.
Avalanches and landslides frequently block roads and leave communities isolated in the mountains of Pakistan, neighbouring Afghanistan and in Kashmir.
In February, at least 16 Indian soldiers on duty in the mountains of Kashmir were killed when two avalanches swept through army camps.
Kashmir is owned in part by both India and Pakistan, but claimed in full by each of the nuclear-armed rivals.
They launched a peace process in 2004 and the guns on the glacier have largely fallen silent, but Siachen remains a bone of contention in the drawn-out negotiations.
Muslim-majority Kashmir has caused two of the three wars between the neighbours since their independence in 1947 from Britain.
Underlining the uneasy relationship, President Asif Ali Zardari will on Sunday become the first Pakistani head of state since 2005 to visit the arch-rival.
During what officials from both sides describe as a “private” one-day visit, Zardari will be the guest of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi before heading to an important Muslim shrine to offer prayers.