Dozen feared dead in Alps avalanche toll may rise

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The Independent Online
RESCUERS HAVE recovered the bodies of two people, and 10 tourists are still missing following the avalanche on Sunday which covered 10 chalets in the Swiss Alps.

The bodies of a 23-year-old man and a 22-year-old woman were dug from the snow amid fears that the death-toll could mirror that of the Chamonix disaster earlier this month, which killed 12 people. A young girl has been rescued with minor injuries and was last night being treated in hospital.

The latest fatal avalanche to hit the Alps comes as three British skiers, businessmen from the Midlands, appeared in a French court accused of endangering the lives of others by ignoring warnings not to ski on areas closed because of avalanche forecasts.

There have been calls for stiff fines and suspended jail sentences when the men appear again at the court, in Albertville, in the French Alps, on 29 March.

Yesterday saw more heavy snowfalls, already the worst in decades, across much of Europe's alpine ski resorts and villages. In Austria 20,000 tourists are trapped in ski resorts, and rivers fed from mountain streams burst their banks in many lowland areas around the Alps. The Rhine at the French- German border was expected to reach its highest level this century - five times normal flow.

In the French Alps, blizzards and the threat of avalanches prevented gendarmes from setting out to rescue three men blocked by snow since last Tuesday above the resort of Pralognan.

The three have built an igloo for shelter and have talked to the gendarmes using a mobile telephone. But there has been no contact since Sunday, when they said they lacked food and water and were suffering from bitter cold. Rescuers said they believed the phone's batteries had run out and they would try to reach the men once the storm abated.

In the Pyrenees, rescuers backed by a helicopter found four members of a group of six - four men and two women in their 20s - who had failed to return from a weekend excursion to a 2,300-metre-high (7,600 ft) mountain near Bagneres de Bigorre.

They were trying to reach the remaining two, who had fallen 100 metres (300 ft) and were injured.

In western Austria at least 50 Britons are among thousands of trapped German, Dutch and Swiss tourists.

"It's snowing continuously and there's absolutely no end in sight. It will be difficult for the resorts to keep the snowed -in punters happy," a spokesman at the OeAMTC motoring club said.

"Some are savouring the situation, some find it relaxing, some just accept it and others are very impatient," said Ludwig Muxel, mayor of the popular resort of Lech.

The army sent 12 helicopters to the endangered provinces of Tyrol and Vorarlberg and had already airlifted out around 150 people by midday.

But airlifts in other areas were impossible because of further heavy snowfalls on top of the more than 2.5 metres (eight feet) that fell in the last six days.

The continued risk posed by the weather has reinforced the message that off-piste skiing could endanger lives. The French authorities have promised to crack down hard on skiers who disobey the piste rules and persist in going off-piste while the avalanche risk remains high.

That includes the three Britons, rescued from the "black" (ie strictly prohibited) slope in the Val d'Isere the day after an avalanche killed 12 people near Chamonix. The public prosecutor, Roger Ternoy, said the case had been brought "not because we want to persecute the English but because of the very real danger which the men brought on themselves and their rescuers".

Guy McBride, 38, Jonathan Fairley, 37, and Paul Crowther, 35, all business executives, denied the charge of "placing the lives of others in danger". They told the court that they had strayed on to the closed piste by mistake in poor visibility.