Pakistan: 22 freeze to death in cars stranded in snow in Murree hill station

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Web Desk
At least 22 people froze to death in cars stranded in snow on Saturday, amid a glut of tourist influx that led to extreme traffic jams on roads leading to the Murree hill station in north-eastern Pakistan.
The traffic jams were exacerbated by heavy snowfall overnight, which resulted in road blockages. In some instances, the snowstorm and intense winds had also uprooted trees that had fallen on the roads and in one instance, on a couple of vehicles, English newspaper DailyDawn reported.
Television footage from Saturday evening showed queues of cars loaded with tourists, hours after Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar issued instructions to expedite rescue work and provide aid to those stranded.
However, in a tweet in the evening, Buzdar claimed that all those stranded had been moved to government rest houses and hotels, adding that they were being provided with food, medicines, blankets and other essentials.
According to ISPR, the media wing of Pakistan’s armed forces, all stranded persons had been shifted from their vehicles to safety, while army engineers and troops continued working to clear snow on roads leading to Murree. It said engineers had already cleared the Murree Expressway.
Meanwhile, entry of cars into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Galiyat was banned, according to the province’s chief minister.
A list issued by Rescue 1122 said 22 people died, including 10 children. The deceased include an assistant sub-inspector of Islamabad police and seven members of his family.
Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, in a video message, said tourists had flocked to the hill station in such large numbers “for the first time in 15 to 20 years which created a big crisis”.
He said Rawalpindi and Islamabad administrations, along with police, had been working to rescue those stranded, while five platoons of the Pakistan Army, as well as Rangers and Frontier Corps, were called on an emergency basis.
The minister said that around 1,000 cars were stuck on the hill station.
Ahmed said that residents of Murree provided food and blankets to stranded tourists, adding that the administration had closed all routes to the hill station and was now allowing only vehicles planning to take food and blankets.
“God willing, we will rescue 1,000 cars by evening today. We have decided to stop people [travelling] on foot as well. It is no time for [pedestrian] tourists to visit.”
The Pakistan Meteorological Department had predicted heavy snowfall in Murree and Galiyat from January 6 to 9.
Meanwhile, the government of Punjab has declared Murree calamity hit and imposed a state of emergency in hospitals, police stations, administration offices and Rescue 1122 services.
In a statement issued by his office, the chief minister said that rescuing stranded tourists was the “foremost priority”, adding that all rest houses and state buildings had been opened to them.
The process to rescue the tourists has been expedited while food and essential items are also being provided, Buzdar said.
More than 23,000 cars were evacuated from the area the night before and the rescue operation was going on, he shared. Buzdar appealed to people to strictly follow instructions given by the police and district administration and cooperate with them.
Pakistan Army troops were also called in to help with the rescue work. In a statement, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) said army engineers reached the area to help open up the main highways.
“Heavy machinery from Murree, army engineers division and FWO are working without any pause to assist people who are struck,” the ISPR said, adding: “Where machinery can’t reach, troops have been moved and they are clearing traffic and opening roads.”
In the evening, the ISPR said all stranded people will be shifted to five relief camps set up by the army in Murree.
“Food, shelter will be provided to people affected by heavy snowfall. Army relief centre has been established at Army School of Technicians Barian, Military College Murree, Jhika Gali, APS Kuldana, station supply depot Sunny Bank,” the ISPR statement read.
In a statement, KP Chief Minister Mahmood Khan said he was keeping a close eye on the situation in Galiyat which has also been overcrowded with tourists in the current winter season.
The entry of cars into Galiyat has been banned completely, he said, adding that no untoward accident had occurred in the area where three feet of snow fell a day earlier.
The chief minister added that tourists who had been stranded in cars were rescued and shifted to rest houses and hotels. “Galiyat Development Authority, Rescue 1122 and local administration have been put on high alert to deal with any untoward situation,” he said.
Khan also instructed all deputy commissioners to ensure that all homeless people in the province were moved to shelter homes amid the snow and rain and no one slept in the open.
Meanwhile, opposition political leaders criticised the government for its handling of the influx of tourists and inadequate preparation.
Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly and PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif said he was heartbroken over the tragedy in Murree and questioned who was responsible for the deaths.
“Where was the government all the while? What arrangements did it make to deal with such an influx? Incompetence is fast turning into criminality. Prior arrangements & round the clock supervision were the normal SOPs in the past,” he tweeted.
Terming the deaths heartbreaking, PPP Vice President Sherry Rehman said governments “needed to be more vigilant about the flood of tourists on the Galiyat routes”.
“Instead of seeking more tourists govt should have given a warning for jammed roads. These were tragic & avoidable losses which no one intended, but no one acted in time either. Lessons need to be learnt,” she added.
“The job of governments is not only to count tourists but also to make advance arrangements and security measures for them […] These deaths are not due to snowfall, but due to government negligence,” tweeted PML-N Vice President Maryam Nawaz.

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