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'Air bridge' only link to Kashmir

The IAF toiled day and night to link the snowbound Kashmir valley with the rest of the country.
By IANS | PTI, Srinagar
UPDATED ON FEB 24, 2005 11:58 AM IST

As the Indian Air Force (IAF)'s An-32 transport aircraft descended into the airport in this summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, the runway sparkled free of snow on Wednesday, thanks to tireless efforts of the armed forces.

Since Monday, the air traffic control tower here toiled day and night as the IAF mounted a massive operation to link the scenic but snowbound Kashmir Valley with the rest of the country through an "air bridge".

The only areas not covered by snow were the vertical walls of buildings, and the cleared blacktop of the runway glistened in the winter sun.

Group Captain R. Shankar from the IAF base at Jammu said 80 sorties by Il-76 and An-32 transport aircraft and helicopters had been made to the Kashmir Valley in the past two days.

IAF bases at Jammu, Udhampur, Pathankot and Chandigarh were operating flights day and night to sustain a lifeline to the snowbound valley through the air bridge.

Civilian flights to Srinagar resumed only on Tuesday and passengers at the airport were eager to get out of the snow.

"I just want to get out of here," a middle-aged woman said as she went past security checks at the airport.

An airport official said no civilian flights could operate at night and only a limited number of people could board available flights. "The IAF pilots were daring enough to risk landing at odd hours in snowbound conditions," he said.

Across the Banihal tunnel - around which the snow was between six and 20 feet - the Kashmir Valley wore a white mantle.

Indian Army chief, Gen. JJ Singh, who on Wednesday toured Kashmir to review relief operations by his force, said: "If the weather remains good, it would take seven to 10 days to open up the Jammu-Srinagar highway."

The highway forms the only lifeline between the Kashmir Valley and the rest of India. Since avalanches blocked it, the supply of food, medical supplies and fuel to the valley along the highway has come to a standstill.

Since then, the IAF has scrambled to airlift food and fuel, including diesel and kerosene, to the valley.

Security was tight at every gate of the Srinagar airport - from the technical area to the civilian airport - with the worried faces of security personnel narrating the nightmare of the past week's continuous snowfall.

Several vehicles and equipment at the airport were still below two-three feet of snow and bulldozers could be seen clearing the network of roads and runways so that normalcy could be restored.

Ashraf, a 19-year-old Kashmiri boy clearing a snow-laden road, said it was the continuous effort of the armed forces and locals that had made the airport operational.

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