21 die trapped in vehicles after heavy snowfall in Pakistan's Murree

Around 1,000 cars were still stuck on the hill station in Pakistan’s Punjab province

Pakistan’s popular hill station Murree was declared a calamity-hit area on Saturday after at least 21 people, including nine children, froze to death in their stranded vehicles due to unprecedented snowfall and rush of tourists to the picturesque town in the country’s Punjab province.

All the routes in Murree in Rawalpindi district were blocked after thousands of vehicles entered the city, leaving the tourists helpless on the roads.

Around 1,000 cars were stuck on the hill station while Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar issued instructions for expediting rescue work and providing aid to the stranded tourists, the Dawn newspaper reported.

The Punjab Government has imposed a state of emergency in hospitals, police stations and administration offices.

According to a list issued by Rescue 1122, at least 21 people died, including nine children, it said.

Prime Minister Imran Khan said he was shocked and upset at the tragic deaths of tourists on the road to Murree.

"Unprecedented snowfall & rush of people proceeding without checking weather conditions caught district admin unprepared. Have ordered inquiry & putting in place strong regulation to ensure prevention of such tragedies," Mr. Khan said in a tweet.

The military has been mobilised to clear roads and rescue people still trapped, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid said in a video message. He said Murree had "seen a huge number of tourists after 15-20 years", and due to that, a crisis took place.

Mr. Rashid said the government was forced to close the road from Islamabad to Murree.

The commissioners of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, deputy commissioners, police, are carrying out rescue operations, he said.

"As many as 1,000 vehicles have been stuck since night […] some have been evacuated; 16-19 deaths took place in cars. The locals provided food and blankets to the stranded people," Mr. Rashid said.

He said the authorities would evacuate 1,000 vehicles by Saturday evening, while the roads would remain closed to Murree till Sunday at 9 PM.

"We have also decided to ban tourists who are planning to visit Murree. This is not the time to come to Murree," the Minister was quoted as saying by the Geo News.

The Punjab Government has declared Murree as a calamity-hit area after heavy snowfall wreaked havoc in the city. Taking notice of the chaos and emergency situation, Punjab Chief Minister Buzdar has directed to open the government’s offices and rest houses for the stranded tourists.

The Pakistan Meteorological Department had predicted heavy snowfall in Murree and Galiyat from January 6 to 9.

Thousands of tourists, including women and children, have been trapped on the roads in the area since last night. Officials of the traffic police, however, were making their efforts to restore the flow of traffic on the roads.

Taking to Twitter, Rawalpindi Deputy Commissioner said, “Around 23,000 vehicles have been evacuated safely from Murree. Around 1,000 are still stranded." Opposition political leaders criticised the government for its handling of the influx of tourists and inadequate preparation.

Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly and PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif said he was heartbroken over the tragedy in Murree and questioned who was responsible for the deaths.

"Where was the government all the while? What arrangements did it make to deal with such an influx? Incompetence is fast turning into criminality. Prior arrangements & round-the-clock supervision were the normal SOPs in the past," he tweeted.

Terming the deaths heartbreaking, PPP vice president Sherry Rehman said governments "needed to be more vigilant about the flood of tourists on the Galiyat routes".

"Instead of seeking more tourists, the government should have given a warning for jammed roads. These were tragic & avoidable losses that no one intended, but no one acted in time either. Lessons need to be learnt," she added.

"The job of governments is not only to count tourists but also to make advance arrangements and security measures for them […] These deaths are not due to snowfall but due to government negligence," tweeted PML-N vice president Maryam Nawaz.

A large number of people were stranded and flights faced delays as the rain continued to lash the federal capital and Rawalpindi for the fourth consecutive day on Friday.

Due to continuous snowfall and traffic congestion in Murree, the district administration imposed a ban on the entry of more vehicles.

Snowfall, which began on Tuesday night, continued with regular intervals, attracting thousands of tourists. However, due to the rush of visitors, many families ended up getting stranded on roads. It has been reported that over 100,000 vehicles entered the hill station.

In a statement, Chief Traffic Officer Taimoor Khan said the entry of vehicles into Murree had been banned from Friday night onwards and cars were being diverted from toll plazas and other entrances, the Dawn reported.

He said since snowfall started on Monday morning, more than 155,000 vehicles had entered Murree and 135,000 had so far left.

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