Avalanche-hit trekkers fight to get on rescue flights

KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Trekkers stranded by an avalanche in Nepal, many of them from Israel, fought for food and for places on rescue helicopters after being denied shelter by locals in the aftermath of an earthquake that killed more than 5,000 people.

Up to 250 people were feared missing immediately after an avalanche on Tuesday hit a village in Langtang, a national park north of the capital Kathmandu. In the event, there were no confirmed deaths or serious injuries.

Hundreds of trekkers, many of them cold and hungry, were unable to make it back to safety because roads and paths had been blocked, while some guest houses damaged in Saturday's 7.8 magnitude quake shut their doors to visitors.

"We were sitting in our tent when suddenly a boulder of ice fell on it," Israeli trekker Lily Milkovich told Reuters. "After a few minutes we found that some of our friends had been buried under the snow. Once we felt we were safe to help them, we started pulling them out," she said by telephone after being flown out to a pick-up point for bringing evacuees by bus back to Kathmandu.

Milkovich said there had been fights to get on the choppers, but tensions eased when it became clear that there would be enough flights to bring everyone to safety.

One Israeli rescuer described the situation in Langtang as "tense", and said there had been fights over scarce food between stranded trekkers and Nepali villagers. "Villagers think the tourists are taking too much of the food," said Amit Rubin, who is based at Kathmandu airport with a team from Magnus International Search & Rescue.

District governor Uddhav Bhattarai, directing operations from the pick-up point, said 100 people were airlifted out on Wednesday morning with another 125 to come.

The Israeli helicopters were rescuing their own nationals first, before retrieving people from other countries, he told Reuters.

Around 150 Israeli tourists had been in Langtang, which is less well known than the Annapurna Circuit, where 43 people died in blizzards last autumn in the country's worst trekking disaster.

Nepali and Israeli helicopters were shuttling out trekkers, and an Israeli search team was combing through villages to find those unaccounted for. Many tourists don't register with embassies when they visit Nepal, making it hard to know how many may be missing.

Yehonathan Lebel, deputy chief of mission at the Israeli embassy in Kathmandu, said bringing the trekkers back to safety was a top priority. "It is very cold up there, people don't have food and they are getting really desperate," he said.

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