Three more bodies pulled from Nepal disaster zone

KATHMANDU (AFP) - Nepalese teams pulled three more bodies from the snow on Monday, as authorities prepared to end the full-scale search for survivors of a snowstorm that struck almost a week ago, leaving at least 40 dead or presumed dead.

More than 500 people have now been airlifted to safety since heavy snow hit Nepal's popular Annapurna region last Tuesday at the height of the trekking season, triggering avalanches and killing dozens of people.

Emergency workers have retrieved 35 bodies so far, including three recovered Monday morning, said Macchindra Acharya of the Trekking Agencies' Association of Nepal (TAAN).

"The bodies of five others are still believed to be buried under snow," Acharya said.

The dead include at least 17 tourists - among them Canadians, Israelis, Indians, Poles, Slovakians and Japanese - nine Nepalese guides and porters, three yak herders, and five people who were climbing a nearby mountain.

The nationality of six others was not known.

Six helicopters fanned out over the affected areas on Monday morning to rescue any trekkers still stuck in the region, with TAAN officials saying they had no information about any more stranded tourists.

"We have had a few enquiries from local companies about missing porters and guides, we are looking into it," Acharya said.

Nepalese officials believe most of those affected have now been pulled to safety or walked out on their own, although it remains unclear how many trekkers, guides and porters were in the area when the blizzard hit.

One of the porters said he survived the storm by chewing on "bits of snow" to parch his dehydrated throat.

"We heard a booming sound," Semnurpu Tamang said. "Suddenly we were buried under snow." By the time the father-of-five emerged, "everything was white" with no sign of most of his teammates.

Tamang and three other porters, none wearing caps or gloves, took shelter under a stone until the storm eased, before heading out to find help. They trudged through waist-deep snow for several hours, sliding down icy slopes when they became too exhausted to walk anymore. Finally they located a group of trekkers who offered them food and juice, before help arrived in the form of a chopper.

Seven members of Tamang's team survived, including three Swiss trekkers. Nine died, six from them porters from the same family.

As she waited outside a Kathmandu morgue for the bodies of six relatives, Kippa Sangmo Tamang said her family was devastated by the loss.

"I cannot describe the environment at home, everyone is crying," she said. "It is terrible."

Tamang, whose husband used to be a porter before becoming a migrant worker in Malaysia, said the family had tried to steer younger members away from working in the mountains.

"My cousin who died was just 17 - he didn't listen when we told him to stay in school," she said.

"You only make about six or seven hundred rupees (S$8-9) a day... That isn't worth your life." Police official Bikash Khanal said that 502 trekkers, guides and others have been rescued since search operations started on Wednesday, including 299 foreigners.

Thousands of people head to the Annapurna region every October, when the monsoon rains clear and the weather is usually at its best for trekking.

The disaster follows Mount Everest's deadliest ever avalanche, which killed 16 guides in April and forced an unprecedented shutdown of the world's highest peak.

Impoverished and landlocked Nepal relies heavily on tourism revenues from climbing and trekking.