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Avalanche buries scores of Pakistani soldiers

Updated at 3:29 p.m. ET: ISLAMABAD -- A massive avalanche engulfed a Pakistani army battalion headquarters near the Indian border on Saturday, burying 124 soldiers and several civilians, officials told NBC News.  More than 17 hours later, there were no signs of survivors.

"Though hectic rescue efforts were kicked off, the rescue team could not start the work as the avalanche spread to an area of one square kilometer (.62 miles) and is around a hundred feet deep" a military official told NBC News.

"At night temperatures fall to minus 30 (minus 22 Fahrenheit). In these extreme conditions the chances of any soldier surviving under a ton of heavy snow is very low" said the military official in Skardu.

Rescue efforts in the area were only possible with helicopters as no road link is available.

A military source said the death toll could be more than 150, as there were "two units - one was leaving and another was assuming the duty."

This is a major military loss on the part of Pakistan since the battle with India started in 1984 over the control of Sia Chin glaciers.

The victims were trapped in one of the most unforgiving environments on Earth, at an altitude of 15,000 feet near the Siachen Glacier in the Karakoram mountain range.

The area is also one of the world's most militarily tense frontiers, where the Indian and Pakistani armies have confronted each other over disputed territory for decades.

Several civilian employees of the military were buried under the snow along with the soldiers of the 6 Northern Light Infantry Battalion, the military said in a statement, according to Reuters.

"This battalion headquarter (has been) situated at same place for the last 20 years and no incident of this nature has happened,'' it said.

Helicopters were deployed in a rescue operation. Troops used sniffer dogs to comb the area, said the military. Heavy engineering equipment was flown to the site from the garrison city of Rawalpindi, near the capital Islamabad.

Siachen is in the northern part of the Himalayan region of Kashmir. The no-man's-land of Siachen is 20,000 feet (6,000 metres) above sea level.

Military experts say the inhospitable climate and avalanche-prone terrain have claimed more lives than gunfire.

Muslim-majority Kashmir is at the heart of hostility between India and Pakistan and was the cause of two of their three full-scale wars.

Siachen has been described as the world's highest battlefield. Indian and Pakistani troops have fought at altitudes of more than 20,000 feet in sub-zero temperatures.

Between 10,000 and 20,000 Indian and Pakistani troops are stationed in the mountains above the glacier.

A tentative peace process is under way, with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari scheduled to meet Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Sunday, the first visit to India by a Pakistani head of state since 2005.

Reuters and NBC's Fakhar Rehman in Pakistan contributed to this report.

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