A series of avalanches struck the Bishkek-Osh highway, the only transportation route connecting the north and south of the mountainous Central Asian state early Tuesday morning, claiming the lives of at least four people.
"The number of casualties is four people and their bodies are being transported to Bishkek," Emil Akmatov, senior public relations and information officer at the civil defence department of the Kyrgyz Emergency Ministry, told IRIN from the capital, Bishkek on Tuesday, admitting, however, that the death toll could rise.
Of the seven people hospitalised, six were in good condition, while the seventh victim was in intensive care at the central Toktogul town hospital.
According to the Emergency Ministry, the avalanches swept across the Bishkek-Osh highway, a vital stretch of roadway in four separate places, 133 km, 198 km, 222 and 226 km from the capital. And while rescue workers were on the scene, preliminary reports Tuesday afternoon suggested some 10 vehicles remained trapped under the snow in the two later locations.
The civil defence department of the southern Jalal-Abad province reported that 17 vehicles were found on the 222 km to 226 km part of the highway affected, with four people found dead in two cars and no casualties found in the other vehicles accessed. The report noted that in some parts the snow had covered the road by two to three metres, while it reached 20 to 30 metres in the canyon part of the area.
Meanwhile, emergency officials continued rescue and clearance operations with machines on the ground. "Clearance of the highway is under way with the machines from the Bishkek-Osh highway department coming from Toktogul town," Akmatov said, while Jalal-Abad civil defence department said that 150 metres of the road had still remained under the snow.
An official from the Emergency Ministry told IRIN from the ministry's headquarters in the southern city of Osh that the state meteorology service had warned that a snowstorm was imminent. "Rescue and search works are hampered by low visibility [and bad weather conditions]," Joldoshbek Amanbekov, acting head of the Jalal-Abad civil defence department, told IRIN, adding that some victims could be in the canyon part of the avalanche-hit road.
His colleague Akmatov said that the death toll could rise as it remained unclear what kind of vehicles (cars, minibuses or trucks) remained under the snow. "Our rescue workers haven't been able get into the epicentre of the incident so far," he explained.
Bishkek-Osh highway is the only link connecting the capital and the north of the country with the south, with large amounts of goods being transported along the 625 km route each day.
The strategic highway also serves as primary transport route for people as well. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 most ordinary people travel from Bishkek to Osh using private taxis, running between the country's two largest cities, as air ticket prices - as much as US $80 a round trip - are more than double that of taxi fares. The average monthly salary in the ex-Soviet republic is just US $30.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions