FOUR mountaineers had been plucked to safety high in the Central Asian peaks of Kyrgyzstan, but many more might still be trapped in avalanches that had killed 11, officials warned today.
Forty Russians remained unaccounted for as a helicopter lifted out the four Ukrainian and Czech survivors and the bodies of three mountaineers after three days of snow and fog hampered rescue attempts.
"We cannot rule out the possibility that more may have been trapped," said Emil Akhmatov, spokesman for the emergencies agency in Kyrgysztan, a mountainous former Soviet republic.
There was virtually no chance anyone would still be found alive, he said.
"There is no way to survive in such conditions - we don't expect more survivors."
Khan-Tengri (Lord of the Spirits) is one of the highest peaks in the Tien Shan mountain range and straddles the Kyrgyz, Chinese and Kazakh borders.
Kyrgyzstan, which has a population of about 5 million, has become a favoured destination for foreign mountaineers and trekkers since it became independent after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
About 90 per cent of the country is mountainous and much of it prone to earthquakes.
Yet the emergency situations ministry lacks any specially trained mountain rescue teams and there is no formal system for registering climbers heading to the mountains, said Igor Hanin, chairman of the Terskei volunteer rescue group.
"Not even all tour firms know who they have in their groups - the emergencies ministry should have specialised units for mountain rescue and the state should be controlling the situation."
The first ascent of Khan-Tengri was achieved by a Ukrainian in 1931 following a southern route. The more difficult eastern side was scaled only in 1998.
Several people have died on its slopes over the years and 43 people died on Kyrgyzstan's southern Lenin Peak in a massive avalanche in 1990.