- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2002

SALANG, Afghanistan Rescue workers labored in bitter cold and fierce winds yesterday, digging out nearly 500 people trapped in their cars and a tunnel by an avalanche of snow in the soaring Hindu Kush Mountains. Four persons were killed, officials said.

Three of the dead suffocated inside the Salang Tunnel, and the fourth died in a car buried by snow outside as temperatures overnight plunged to minus 40 degrees, U.N. spokesman Yusuf Hassan said.

Rescuers battling winds up to 55 mph freed about 300 people from vehicles buried in the snow outside the tunnel, said Gerhard Zank of the HALO Trust, a British-based mine-clearing organization that sent armored bulldozers to dig out cars and trucks. Mr. Hassan said rescue teams reached all 57 trapped vehicles.

About 190 persons stranded inside the tunnel were also freed, said Mohammedullah Gulaga, the Afghan coordinator of the rescue effort. The rescue teams included U.S. soldiers and workers from HALO Trust.

Mr. Zank said 89 persons suffering from frostbite and dehydration were evacuated to a field clinic at Jabal Saraj, between the tunnel and Kabul. Seven of them were in serious condition and were flown by helicopter to Kabul, he added.

Salang Tunnel, 80 miles north of the capital, lies on the main road crossing the Hindu Kush and connecting Kabul to northern Afghanistan. It is the main route for aid shipments from north to south. The 2-mile-long tunnel, a widely admired engineering feat, was damaged in Afghanistan's wars but reopened in January after Russian-led repairs.

Substantial snowfalls in recent days in Kabul and some other parts of the country have raised hopes that Afghanistan is seeing the end of a three-year drought that has aggravated the devastation of war.

But the snow also has blocked aid from reaching some remote regions, underlining how the country's severe terrain and primitive infrastructure complicate the interim government's efforts to lead the country toward stability and security.

Meanwhile, a leader in eastern Afghanistan said yesterday that seven suspected al Qaeda members were killed by a missile fired by an unmanned U.S. aircraft. Osama bin Laden was not among the dead, the official said. A U.S. official said the attack may have killed a leader of the terrorist network.

Bad weather in the mountainous region in Paktia province has hampered efforts to get to the attack site and investigate the damage, said Wazir Khan, a brother of regional warlord Padshah Khan Zadran.


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