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Number of dead rises from Turkey double avalanche disaster

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By Euronews  with AP and AFP
Security officers and villagers carry a victim of an avalanche near the town of Bahcesehir, in the eastern Turkey province of Van, on February 5, 2020.
Security officers and villagers carry a victim of an avalanche near the town of Bahcesehir, in the eastern Turkey province of Van, on February 5, 2020.   -   Copyright  DHA / AFP

The number of people killed after a pair of avalanches in eastern Turkey climbed to 41 on Thursday, the country's disaster and emergency agency said.

Search teams aided by sniffer dogs have been scanning a field at the scene of the second avalanche, where a rescue team was struck as it looked for victims of an earlier snowslide. Turkish news agencies said they were looking for the bodies of up to three people still missing.

Turkey's emergency and disaster management agency, AFAD, said that as well as the deaths, the double avalanche left 84 people injured. Earlier on Thursday the health minister said 47 people remained in hospital, with six patients in intensive care.

A ceremony was held for 11 military police officers, nine village guards and two firefighters who were killed by the avalanches. Their coffins were sent to their hometowns for burial.

The region where the two avalanches occurred is a mountainous area of Turkey's far east, where access is difficult and conditions are harsh in winter.

Double catastrophe

On Wednesday some 300 emergency service workers were called to a highway near the mountain-surrounded town of Bahcesaray in Van province, which borders Iran, after the first avalanche struck late Tuesday. That snowslide killed five people and left two missing when it hit a highway.

The second avalanche slammed into a mountain road around noon, wiping out a huge team of rescue workers sent to find those missing from the earlier incident.

As night fell, the number of people known to have died was put at 38, including 33 emergency workers. Others were thought to be still buried under the snow.

Video from the scene showed at least three overturned vehicles at the bottom of a hill during a snowstorm. Some rescuers were struggling to climb out of a steep incline while others dug frantically into the snow with shovels and pick-axes. Fog, heavy snow and strong winds were hampering the rescue efforts.

"I was half buried"

The head of AFAD's operations in Van province, Osman Ucar, was among those injured. Speaking from his hospital bed, he said he was dragged along with an excavator that was toppled by the sliding snow.

``"I was half-buried,'' he said, adding that he escaped on his own.

The first avalanche buried a snow-clearing vehicle and a minibus. The vehicle's operator and seven passengers escaped alive.

The state-run Anadolu Agency said the driver, Bahattin Karagulle, was trapped beneath the snow for 25 minutes before he managed to break a window and escape. He walked toward a village to get help before being picked up by a passing vehicle.