Heavy snowfall kills 21 at Murree Hill station in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – At least 21 people died on Saturday when their cars got stuck on snow-covered roads leading to a popular tourist town just outside of Pakistan’s capital Islamabad.

Soldiers rescued people in at least 24,000 vehicles stranded by heavy snowfall near Murree hill station, officials said. Other snow-covered drivers and their passengers received blankets and food.

“Where the machines cannot reach, troops have been moved and they are clearing traffic and opening roads,” read a statement from the Pakistani army.

Relief officials said the victims were found dead in their vehicles, some possibly dying of carbon monoxide poisoning overnight. The dead included a family of four daughters and two sons, all under the age of 15.

Heavy snowfall in Murree and parts of northern Pakistan has been predicted by the country’s weather service no later than January 5, and came as part of a larger cold wave affecting the region, including the Indian side of the Himalayas.

The authorities blamed the disaster on large numbers of tourists who ignored the weather forecast. But critics of the government said local authorities were ill-equipped to handle the annual influx and under-prepared to deal with emergencies.

Murree, a rustic mountainside town 34 km northeast of Islamabad, is a popular tourist destination that attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, and Prime Minister Imran Khan has personally promoted tourism to the region. . A few days ago, Fawad Chaudhry, Pakistan’s Minister of Information, welcomed the massive influx of tourists, saying 100,000 vehicles had entered Murree.

But on Saturday, Mr. Chaudhry pleaded for people to cancel their travel plans because it had become impossible for the local authorities to respond to so many people. And when disaster struck, the prime minister appeared to accuse tourists of neglect.

“Unprecedented snowfall and a rush of ppl proceeding without checking the weather conditions caught the district administrator off guard,” Mr. Khan said on Twitter.

Critics say that despite Murree’s proximity to the nation’s capital and despite the predictable nature of the large tourist flow each year, local authorities are often overwhelmed by the large number of visitors.

“For a tragedy like this to occur on the roads of the country’s busiest hill station is appalling,” said Sarah N. Ahmad, an urban policy specialist who founded Urban Innovation, a research group and advocacy center based in Lahore. “These deaths were completely preventable and the government is responsible to the people for this oversight. “

Heavy snowfall on the Indian side blocked roads and disrupted transport in the Kashmir region as well as in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh.

Flights have been repeatedly canceled to Srinagar, the capital of Indian-administered Kashmir, where tourists flock to snow and ski.

It was also reported that snow was blocking roads between Srinagar and Ladakh, a border region at the center of recent military tensions between India and China. Tens of thousands of Indian and Chinese soldiers remain at high altitudes and freezing temperatures for a second winter after skirmishes between the armies of the two countries in the summer of 2020.

Mujib Mashal contributed reporting from New Delhi, India.

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