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Afghan avalanche death toll rises amid rescue effort

KABUL, Afghanistan — The death toll from a massive avalanche in an Afghan valley rose yet again Saturday as rescue crews cleared roads to try to gain access to rural villages buried under deep snow for days.

Mohammad Aslam Syas, deputy chief of the Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority, said 186 people have been confirmed dead alone in the hard-hit Panjshir Province, 100 kilometers (60 miles) northeast of Kabul.

Machinery has been moved into the Panjshir Valley to help clear roads buried beneath at least 1 meter (3 feet) of snow. Syas said army helicopters on Saturday continued to distribute food and other essentials to villages cut off for days.

Nationwide, the death toll from the avalanche and accompanying flooding rose Saturday to at least 235 people killed, said Mohammad Daim Kakar, general-director for the National Disaster Management Authority. He added that after Panjshir province, Badakhshan province had 35 people killed, Parwan province had 15 dead and Nuristan province had 11 dead.

Severe weather has affected at least 21 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces and more than 1,000 houses are destroyed or damaged.

In a televised address, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said that he would postpone a trip to neighboring Iran to remain behind and try to help with the recovery.

"I can't leave my countrymen and my home alone right now," Ghani said.

Afghanistan has suffered through some three decades of war since the Soviet invasion in 1979. But natural disasters such as landslides, floods and avalanches have also taken a heavy toll on a country with little infrastructure or development outside of its major cities. Environmental degradation has worsened the problem in the north.

Among recent major natural disasters in Afghanistan was a massive landslide in May that killed hundreds. Some estimates suggest that 2,700 people died, although there has never been a definitive count. Another landslide in 2012 killed 71 people.