An Afghan rescue team looks on during an evacuation operation of avalanche victims in Salang Pass, 115 kilometers north of Kabul, Afghanistan, on Wednesday. ((Musadeq Sadeq/Associated Press))

Helicopters ferried rescuers to and bodies away from the site of massive avalanches that blocked an important mountain pass north of Kabul in Afghanistan as the death toll soared Wednesday to 166, officials said.

Hundreds remained trapped in snowbound cars.

Afghan army troops dug through huge snowdrifts trying to rescue people from buried vehicles in the Salang Pass, a key road that connects the capital with the north.

The four kilometres of road that were covered by the avalanches have been cleared of snow, but are littered with abandoned or snow-packed cars that still make much of it impassable, said the public works minister, Suharab Ali Safari.


Afghan commuters walk out of the Salang Tunnel in this 2002 file photo, taken two days after an avalanche killed four people. ((Bullit Marquez/Associated Press))

Victims frozen, trapped

Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary said rescuers have recovered 166 bodies from the Salang Pass, 115 kilometres north of Kabul, over the past two days.

Some of the victims were found frozen to death inside their vehicles, while in other cases, their bodies were strewn along the road, he said.

Bashary said late Wednesday that the rescue operation was "95 per cent over," suggesting authorities did not expect further significant increases in the death toll.

President Hamid Karzai expressed his sorrow for the increasing death toll in a statement.

Frantic search for survivors

More than two dozen avalanches — which were triggered Monday — poured tonnes of snow and ice on the 3,800-metre pass. The 2.6-kilometre-long Salang Tunnel, a Soviet-built landmark dating from the 1960s through the Hindu Kush mountains, was cut off, with dozens of cars, buses and trucks jammed inside.

At a news conference in Kabul, Bashary said ambulances, bulldozers and other road-clearing equipment were now able to get to the site. About 2,600 people have been rescued so far, he said.

Some 400 police, along with 100 local volunteers, have been involved in the frantic effort to dig out survivors in the last 24 hours, he said.