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article imageRescuers hunt scores of trekkers missing after deadly Nepal storm

By Ammu Kannampilly (AFP)     Oct 16, 2014 in World

Rescuers in Nepal battled waist-deep snow as they searched a remote mountainous area popular with trekkers for dozens of people still missing on Thursday, two days after a major snowstorm that triggered avalanches and killed more than 30 people.

Local officials said 23 bodies have been found on the popular Annapurna circuit trekking route, while five climbers who were staying at a mountain base camp when it was hit by an avalanche could not be found and were presumed dead.

Three Nepalese yak herders were also killed when severe weather triggered by the tail end of Cyclone Hudhud hit the picturesque Annapurna region in central Nepal.

But the majority of victims were tourists -- among them Canadians, Israelis and Indians -- and their guides.

Thousands of people head to the Annapurna region every October, when weather conditions are usually clear and cool.

A major rescue effort using helicopters and emergency workers on foot is under way and authorities said 43 stranded trekkers had been rescued in the region so far.

In all, 168 foreign tourists were registered to hike in the affected districts, Manang and Mustang, and authorities are now trying to track the rest of them down, with efforts hampered by poor telecommunications.

Nepal trekking tragedy
Nepal trekking tragedy

"We have intensified our searches, the focus is on finding survivors rather than dead bodies," said Keshav Pandey, who is coordinating the rescue effort of the Trekking Agencies' Association of Nepal (TAAN).

"We have learnt that around 23 foreign tourists are safe and waiting at a small guesthouse near Thorong Phedi in Manang, we will rescue them as soon as possible," Pandey told AFP.

Another 26 trekkers and porters -- including 22 foreigners -- are stranded at a guesthouse at Thorong High Camp, located at an altitude of 4800 metres (15,748 feet) in Manang, a US hiker stuck there said.

Max Weinstein, 18, told AFP he sought refuge at the guesthouse after he found himself in the grip of the snowstorm.

"We left our hotel in Thorong Phedi at 0630 am on Tuesday, with hotel staff telling us it was totally safe to go up," Weinstein said speaking by phone from the hotel.

As he and a 66-year-old woman he was trekking with hiked on, visibility worsened as more and more snow began to come down.

"The snow kept getting heavier, we couldn't see anything, and soon these big rocks began falling down," he said.

After hearing booming sounds that "sounded like avalanches", they decided to stop at the guesthouse, where some two dozen trekkers are now waiting for assistance.

- Mountaineers 'presumed dead' -

Rescuers were searching for two Slovakian mountaineers and three Nepalese guides who went missing after an avalanche struck teams stationed at the base camp of 8,167-metre (26,795 foot) Mount Dhaulagiri on Tuesday night.

"We are running helicopter missions to try and find them, but we can find no sign of them, we presume they are dead," said Ganesh Rai, the police official in charge of the rescue effort.

"So far we have located 16 bodies in Mustang district in the Annapurna region, but we don't have a clear picture yet of how many are foreigners since we still need to identify them," Rai told AFP.

The bodies of four Canadians, two Israelis, one Pole, one Vietnamese, three Indians, one German and eight Nepalese have been found. The nationality of three others found was unknown, he said.

Among them were at least seven hikers who lost their lives in an avalanche in neighbouring Manang district, according to a local official, correcting an earlier estimate of eight trekkers.

"We are working to recover the bodies of four Canadians and three Indians buried by the avalanche," said Rajendra Babu Regmi, Manang police chief.

The region has seen unusually heavy snowfall this week sparked by Cyclone Hudhud, which slammed into India's east coast over the weekend.

The latest disaster follows the deaths of 16 people in an avalanche on Mount Everest in April that forced an unprecedented shutdown of the world's highest peak.

Scores of expeditions were cancelled after the avalanche tore through a group of sherpas who were hauling gear up the mountain for their foreign clients.

The effective closure of the 8,848-metre (29,029-foot) mountain for the season dealt a huge blow to impoverished Nepal, which relies heavily on tourism revenues from climbing and trekking.

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