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Pakistan army hopes miracle will save avalanche victims

By Mahawish Rezvi

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan's military hoped for a miracle on Sunday as rescue teams searched for 124 soldiers and 11 civilians buried by a Himalayan avalanche near the Indian border, with no sign of survivors more 24 hours later.

The avalanche engulfed a Pakistani army battalion headquarters near a glacier early on Saturday, leaving snow up to 80 feet deep over an area a kilometer wide.

The victims are trapped in one of the most unforgiving environments on Earth, at an altitude of 15,000 feet near the Siachen Glacier in the Karakoram mountain range.

"Let's hope for a miracle," a military official, who asked to remain anonymous, told Reuters.

Helicopter rescue teams and troops on the ground with sniffer dogs were racing against time.

"On Wednesday and Thursday we expect cloudy conditions and some snow fall as well which will make it difficult for any rescue operations to continue," said meteorologist Mohammed Hanif on state television.

The area is also one of the world's most militarily tense frontiers, where the Indian and Pakistani armies have confronted each other over disputed territory for decades.

Eleven civilian employees of the military were buried under the snow along with the soldiers of the 6 Northern Light Infantry Battalion, the military said in a statement.

The army listed the names of the missing on its public relations website, from officers to waiters to barbers.

The military has ruled Pakistan for more than half of its 64 year history, setting foreign and security policy even when civilian governments are in power, as is the case now.

Siachen is in the northern part of the Himalayan region of Kashmir. The no-man's-land of Siachen is 20,000 feet above sea level.

Military experts say the inhospitable climate and avalanche-prone terrain have claimed more lives than gunfire.

Muslim-majority Kashmir is at the heart of hostility between India and Pakistan and was the cause of two of their three full-scale wars since independence from Britain in 1947.

Siachen has been described as the world's highest battlefield. Indian and Pakistani troops have fought at altitudes of over 20,000 feet in temperatures of minus 60 degrees Celsius.

Between 10,000 and 20,000 Indian and Pakistani troops are stationed in the mountains above the glacier.

A tentative peace process is under way, with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari scheduled to meet Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Sunday, the first visit to India by a Pakistani head of state since 2005.

(Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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