KATHMANDU (AFP) - Nepalese rescuers on Thursday scoured Himalayan hiking routes for more than 100 trekkers who have been out of contact since a snowstorm and avalanche that have killed around 32 people, including foreign tourists and guides.
Local officials said that 24 bodies had been found on the popular Annapurna circuit, while five climbers who were staying at a mountain base camp when it was hit by an avalanche could not be found and were presumed dead.
Three Nepalese yak herders were also killed when severe weather triggered by the tail end of Cyclone Hudhud hit the Himalayan region in central Nepal.
Ganesh Rai, the police official in charge of the effort, said emergency workers had rescued 43 stranded trekkers, but more than 100 others remained out of contact.
Rescuers were searching for two Slovakian mountaineers and three Nepalese guides who went missing after an avalanche struck teams stationed at the base camp of 8,167-metre Mount Dhaulagiri on Tuesday night.
"We are running helicopter missions to try and find them, but we can find no sign of them, we presume they are dead," said Rai.
"So far we have located 16 bodies in Mustang district in the Annapurna region, but we don't have a clear picture yet of how many are foreigners since we still need to identify them," said Rai, who is heading the rescue effort.
The bodies of four Canadians, two Israelis, one Pole, one Vietnamese, one Indian, one German and 11 Nepalese have been found. The nationality of three others found was unknown, he said.
Among them were at least eight hikers who lost their lives in an avalanche in neighbouring Manang district, according to a local official.
"We have located the bodies of eight people including four Canadians, an Indian, and three Nepalis killed in an avalanche," district official Devendra Lamichanne told AFP.
- Everest disaster -
Some 168 foreign tourists were registered to hike in the districts and authorities are now trying to track the rest of them down, with efforts hampered by poor telecommunications.
"Many people are unaccounted for - we only register foreign nationals, but several Nepalese could also be caught up in the snowstorm," Rai said.
Victims with minor injuries were given first aid at local hospitals while at least 14 trekkers from Hong Kong and Israel were airlifted to Kathmandu suffering from frostbite.
While hundreds of mountaineers train to scale Nepal's peaks, the trekking industry attracts many more people, with thousands arriving in the Annapurna region every October, when weather conditions are usually favourable for hiking.
However, the region has seen unusually heavy snowfall this week sparked by Cyclone Hudhud, which slammed into India's east coast on Sunday. The cyclone also brought downpours to parts of central and western Nepal, including the hilly Gorkha district, where rescuers are searching for a 67-year-old Frenchman who fell into a river on Tuesday morning while trekking.
"Because of the overflowing Budhi Gandaki, it is not possible to search the river," Gorkha police chief Ramesh Thapa told AFP.
The hiker was part of a team of 10 tourists heading up the scenic Manaslu route, named after Mount Manaslu, the world's eighth highest peak. It has been developed as an alternative to the crowded Annapurna circuit.
The latest disaster follows the deaths of 16 people in an avalanche on Mount Everest in April that forced an unprecedented shutdown of the world's highest peak. Scores of expeditions were cancelled after the avalanche tore through a group of sherpas who were hauling gear up the mountain for their foreign clients.
The effective closure of the 8,848-metre mountain for the season dealt a huge blow to impoverished Nepal, which relies heavily on tourism revenues from climbing and trekking.