- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 21, 2010

MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan (AP) — A van carrying at least 30 schoolchildren plunged into a river in Pakistan-held Kashmir on Tuesday, and most of the passengers were confirmed or feared dead.

The driver lost control of the vehicle and it plunged 50 feet into the Jhelum River from an elevated road in the regional capital Muzaffarabad, said local police chief Ghulam Akber. Authorities managed to save the driver and four children, he said.

But school teacher Bashir Mughal said rescue workers took more than an hour to arrive and it was local villagers who plucked the four children from the water.

Fifteen bodies have been recovered from various parts of the river, but the other children are still missing, Mr. Akber said. Some bodies may have been collected by local residents before authorities arrived, he said.

Mohammad Ramzan, a driver from Kanina village — home to most of the children in the van — said he lost four daughters and one son in the accident.

“God had given me those children and he has taken them away,” Mr. Ramzan said, as his wife cried. “All I can do is live with the sadness of this tragedy my whole life.”

His wife’s cries were echoed by many other women in the village who had also lost their children. Some pounded their heads and chests as they wailed, while men dug new graves in the village cemetery.

Many other men from the village joined hundreds of people along the river who desperately searched for the missing children. Rescue workers dove beneath the water looking for bodies as soldiers and police tried to hold back the crowds.

The children involved in the accident were returning from school after attending a function for Eid al-Fitr — the holiday that follows the traditional Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, Mr. Akber said.

Officials initially estimated there were 30 children in the van, but the number could be higher because some of the kids who attended the holiday celebration were not regular passengers, he said.

Rescue workers managed to remove the van from the river, but they didn’t find any children inside, said Mr. Mughal, the school teacher.

“All the children washed away, and people are finding bodies alongside the river at distant places,” he said.

The divided Himalayan region of Kashmir was affected by Pakistan’s devastating floods that started in July, but that didn’t appear to have been a factor in the crash.

Also Tuesday, a roadside bomb killed two paramilitary soldiers on a routine patrol in an area of northwestern Pakistan near the Afghan border, said Riaz Khan, a local administrator in the Khyber tribal area.

The bomb struck the soldiers’ vehicle as it traveled along a road in the Sheen Qamar area of Khyber, said Khan.

There was no claim of responsibility for the attack, but the Pakistani Taliban have carried out similar bombings in the area in the past.

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