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Himalayan blizzard kills pilgrims

Hindu pilgrims, trekking to a sacred ice-cave in the Kashmir region of the Himalayas, have long had to contend with the threat of ambush by Muslim guerrillas. But this year was worse: the full wrath of the Himalayas struck the procession of 90,000 devotees as a freak snowstorm and torrential rain killed over 130 pilgrims.

Indian rescue workers battled against a blizzard and landslides to rescue 7,000 stranded pilgrims who are strung out along 50 miles of sheer, ice- covered mountain terrain. Many pilgrims were seen carrying sick and dying relatives down to spots where they could be airlifted out by army helicopters.

Many sadhus, holy men, were among the dead. They had undertaken the gruelling mountain pilgrimage wearing nothing but ash smeared on their bodies. "The main reason for the deaths is that the pilgrims had no warm clothing. Many were old people. The holy men were trekking naked," said a doctor at an emergency camp in Anantnag, 60 miles from the capital, Srinagar. The Hindu pilgrims had gone to worship at Amarnath Cave, 12,725ft up in the Himalayas, where an icicle is said to be a manifestation of the Lord Shiva's phallus.

Most of the victims were from the heat-scorched plains of northern India, ill-equipped to face the fierce Himalayan blizzard. The death toll may rise as more rain and fog strikes Kashmir, slowing rescue efforts. The Indian army has so far evacuated 30,000 pilgrims.

Taking advantage of a few breaks in the cloud yesterday, helicopters were able to land along the pilgrimage route, dropping off blankets, first- aid kits, and rescuing some of the injured. Despite landslides, troops moved up the mountain trail yesterday with extra food and stretchers. The 50-mile pilgrimage has been officially called off.

The steep, forested valleys near the ice-cave have been overrun by Kashmir separatists who have been fighting Indian security forces during the past six years. Muslim guerrillas last year set off two bombs during the pilgrimage, killing one official and injuring dozens of Hindu worshippers.

To ease communal tensions, Muslim militants this year vowed to leave the unarmed Hindu pilgrims alone. Once the first survivors of the storm staggered down the mountain and alerted officials, Muslim villagers rushed to save the stranded Hindus, taking them into their homes and giving them food and clothing.

Twice in this stark Himalayan landscape, near the pilgrims' cave, Westerners have been kidnapped by Muslim rebels. Two Britons, one a schoolboy, were held captive for 17 days in 1994, while last year five Westerners, including Britons Keith Mangan and Paul Wells, were taken captive.

A Norwegian hostage was beheaded by the kidnappers, members of the Al- Faran group, and the other four may have also been killed last December, according to the testimony of one rebel leader who was seized by the Indian army.