Pakistan avalanche shines light on 'futile' war

Critics say the Siachen Glacier standoff is one of world's most pointless military deployments as US military experts were expected to arrive at the site to assist in the rescue efforts.

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ISLAMABAD // An avalanche that buried more than 120 soldiers in a Himalayan region close to India has put a spotlight on what critics says is one of world's most pointless military deployments: two poverty-wracked nations engaged in a costly standoff over an uninhabitable patch of mountain and ice.

Since Saturday morning, when the massive wall of snow engulfed a Pakistani military complex close to the Siachen Glacier, rescue teams have been unable to dig up any survivors. There is now very little hope that even a small number of people will come out alive.

A team of US military experts was expected to arrive at the site yesterday to assist in the rescue efforts, according to an American official. The team flew in from Afghanistan after the Pakistani army asked for help, the official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to brief the media.

The US military helped Pakistan after the 2005 Kashmir earthquake and floods in 2010, ventures that Washington used to bolster efforts to strengthen its ties with Islamabad, vital in the fight against Al Qaeda. The current mission is far smaller, and comes amid a near-breakdown in relations between the two countries.

Switzerland and Germany are also sending small teams of experts to help, the Pakistani army said.

The missing soldiers are part of the Pakistani military deployment to the Siachen Glacier, which forms the northern part of Kashmir region, disputed between Islamabad and India and the main source of tension between the nuclear-armed rivals who have fought three wars since 1947.

The conflict over Siachen began in 1984 when India occupied the heights of the 78-kilometre long glacier, fearing Pakistan wanted to claim the territory. Islamabad also deployed its troops. A 2003 ceasefire largely ended skirmishes on the glacier, where troops have been deployed as high as 6,000 metres, but both armies remained camped out there.

Neither side releases information on troop numbers in the region, but they are believed to be in the hundreds or low thousands.

Of all the problems plaguing the two countries, Siachen is often described as one of the easiest to solve but it is hostage to general mistrust and hardliners on both sides who don't want to give up their claim on territory, however strategically insignificant.

"This absolutely futile, useless fiasco has been going on since 1984," said Tahira Abdullah, a Pakistan-India peace activist. "It is a one-hour job to agree on a solution, but it is now an ego problem between the two armies. Both armies should pull back from the heights. Soldiers are dying and my heart bleeds for them, but it's for nothing."