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Pakistan: at least 21 dead trapped in their vehicles by a snowstorm

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At least 21 people have died in Pakistan, trapped in a monster traffic jam caused by tens of thousands of visitors rushing to a mountain town with unusually heavy snow, authorities said on Saturday.

Pakistani rescue services, Rescue 1122, released a list of 21 people who died, including a policeman, his wife and their six children. Hasaan Khawar, a spokesman for the Punjab government, said they were frozen to death in their car.

It was not immediately clear whether the other victims, including the five members of another family, died from the same cause or from carbon monoxide poisoning breathed in the cabin of their vehicle.

Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said the army was mobilized to clear the roads and rescue the thousands of people still stranded near Murree, located about 70 kilometers northeast of the capital Islamabad.

Videos shared on social media showed cars immobilized, bumper to bumper with up to a meter of snow on their roofs.

“Heavy snowfall has generated traffic jams and road closures,” Babar Khan, a tourist trapped for hours, told AFP by phone.

“The roads were also closed due to falling trees in many places,” he added.

The Pakistan Weather Forecast Center website said heavy snowfall was expected in the area until Sunday afternoon.

The Minister of Information, Fawad Chaudhry meanwhile announced that “decades” of weather records had been broken in the past 48 hours.

For several days, many photos had been shared on Pakistani social networks showing tourists playing in the snow around Murree, a town founded in the 19th century by the British as a sanatorium for their colonial troops.

The authorities of the province of Punjab announced that Murree had been declared “disaster zone” and asked the population not to go there any more immediately.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said he was shocked, but also annoyed by the tragedy.

“Unprecedented snowfall and a stampede of people moving without checking the weather conditions caught the district administration off guard,” he tweeted.

“I have ordered an investigation and I am putting in place strict regulations to ensure the prevention of such tragedies,” he added.

Authorities had already warned last weekend about the overflow of visitors to Murree, but that hasn’t stopped many Islamabad residents from rushing there again.

“People are facing a terrible situation,” lamented Usman Abbasi, another trapped tourist, contacted by phone by AFP.

“It is not only tourists, the local population also faces serious problems,” he said.

“The gas bottles are exhausted and there is no more drinking water in most neighborhoods – either it’s frozen or the pipes are damaged by the cold,” he said, adding that the hotels were running out of food.

Located at an altitude of 2300 m, Murree clings to the sides of several hills and its narrow access roads are regularly congested, even in good weather.

According to Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, the townspeople took in many visitors who were stuck there and brought blankets and food to those stranded in traffic jams.

Schools and administrative buildings also welcome disaster victims, he added.

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