Hundred people trapped in Afghan avalanche

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The Afghan government made a desperate appeal to the United Nations yesterday to save the lives of up to 100 people trapped by an avalanche close to the Salang tunnel.

The government said an avalanche had cut off the road, the main link between north and south Afghanistan.

Yusuf Hassan, a spokesman for the UN, said Isaf, the British-led peace-keeping force in Kabul, had sent a helicopter. British paratroop engineers were also trying to send snow-moving equipment.

But Major Alex Dick, Isaf's spokesman, said the force's mandate was limited to Kabul and that the interim government would have to approve the rescue. "We have the manpower and equipment to help ... It would purely be a life-saving operation, nothing more."

In the past few days, snow has covered parts of Afghanistan, blocking roads and isolating mountain villages. Mr Hassan said the UN had emergency supplies in many large towns but was concerned that villages could run out of food.

This Independent writer left Kabul early in the morning to try to reach the tunnel before other traffic. The 1.7-mile tunnel, opened by the Soviet Union in 1964, cuts through the Hindu Kush mountains. Its reopening in December was one of a few visible successes of international aid to Afghanistan.

We drove through heavy snow in the Shomali plains, but the weather cleared as we reached the Salang. About six miles from the tunnel some 40 vehicles had been stopped by soldiers who said it was too dangerous to go on. About two miles further up we found another 15 cars sheltering in a concrete gallery built to protect the road from avalanches.

A soldier told us all to turn round. We tried to press on but the car soon stopped in the fine snow and we were forced to return. Other drivers who went on may now be trapped in temperatures well below freezing.