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113 Die as Storm Strands Thousands in Himalayas

August 25, 1996|From Associated Press

JAMMU, India — Navigating through torrential rains, an army helicopter pilot flew Saturday into the Himalayas to rescue two sick Hindu pilgrims from among thousands of people stranded on the slopes.

A freak snowstorm and heavy rains have left at least 113 people dead near a town about 65 miles south of the Jammu-Kashmir state capital, Srinagar.

Doctors feared the death toll could rise as the storm, which began Thursday, persisted.

Rescue teams were prevented from reaching the stranded pilgrims for the second day in a row.

Most of the victims, who were from the plains of India, died of exposure while trekking to a mountain cave to worship an ice idol of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction.

Two state government officials flew aboard the rescue helicopter from Srinagar to the area to assess the problem.

They delivered hundreds of pounds of medicine before picking up two unconscious pilgrims and ferrying them back to a hospital in Srinagar.

An estimated 80,000 people were in the mountains when the storm hit.

The freezing rain and snow have covered the lower slopes with sheer ice, hampering rescue efforts.

The government on Saturday sent a team of 100 police officers and private workers with tents, blankets and warm clothes.

Although it had yet to reach the stranded group, officials were hoping that the rescue team would arrive within a day.

Authorities on Friday called off the annual pilgrimage to the ancient Amarnath caves, asking Hindu worshipers not to leave the city of Jammu.

But more than 115,000 people had already left.

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The pilgrimage that began Aug. 16 includes a 30-mile trek to the Hindu temple 13,500 feet up in the mountains.

Much of the route to the Amarnath cave remains buried under snow.

In a rare spirit of religious tolerance, Muslim residents of the village of Khabanal, on the way to the cave, offered food and shelter to an estimated 15,000 Hindu pilgrims stranded there.

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