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Death Toll Touches 92 as Rain, Snow Batter Himalayan Range

August 24, 1996

JAMMU, India (AP) _ Rain and snow falling on the Himalayan slopes today prevented soldiers from flying to the rescue of thousands of Hindu pilgrims caught in a freak snowstorm during their trek to an ancient mountain cave. At least 113 people have died.

Authorities in Jammu-Kashmir state had identified 68 bodies by this morning, and asked pilgrims to cremate them near roads. The army, however, would help relatives who wanted to take bodies elsewhere, officials said.

An estimated 80,000 people were in the mountains when the storm struck Thursday, making lower slopes slick with rain and piling up 6 inches of snow at colder, higher elevations.

The victims have died of cold or illness, officials said on condition of anonymity. Without medical help quickly, doctors said many more likely would die of exposure.

The Jammu-Kashmir state government tried to send helicopters Friday and today to evacuate pilgrims who have become sick from the cold or exertion, but bad weather has prevented any flights, officials said from the summer capital, Jammu.

A team of 100 policemen and private citizens left today for an arduous 12-mile, steep climb with tents, blankets and warm clothes to try and reach pilgrims stranded near the cave. The journey likely would take a day, officials in the winter capital, Srinagar, said on condition of anonymity.

Authorities on Friday called off the annual pilgrimage to the ancient Amarnath caves to pray at the temple of Lord Shiva, asking more than 10,000 Hindu worshipers not to leave Jammu.

Some 115,000 people already had left on the pilgrimage, which began Aug. 16 and includes a 185-mile bus ride and a three-day, 30-mile trek to the temple 13,500 feet up in the mountains.

Much of the route to the Amarnath cave was buried under snow, making it difficult to return to safer areas.

In a rare spirit of religious tolerance, Muslim residents of the village of Khabanal on the way to the cave, offered food and shelter to some 15,000 Hindu pilgrims stranded there, officials said.

Since 1989, Muslim guerrillas have driven Hindus out of Kashmir province. The rebels, not weather, usually are the main threat to pilgrims, who pass through the main theater of insurrection. The government posted thousands of soldiers along the route to guard the pilgrims.

Details of the humanitarian effort in Khabanal were not available because of poor telecommunications links.

The pilgrimage won’t be complete until a prayer is held at the cave shrine Aug. 28. Officials were planning to fly priests to the cave by helicopter to conduct the final prayer.

Some 35,000 worshipers were believed to have completed the journey and returned home. Officials say that the number of pilgrims this year was the highest since 1989, because Harkat ul-Ansar, one of the dozen rebel groups, did not threaten the pilgrimage.

More than 14,500 people have been killed in battles between Indian soldiers and rebels fighting for an independent Jammu-Kashmir, the only Muslim-majority state in predominantly Hindu India.

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