Nepal rescuers search for missing hikers, bodies in heavy Himalayan snow

Kathmandu, Nepal (CNN) -- The search for missing hikers and bodies buried in snow resumed in central Nepal Thursday after a heavy snowfall left at least 17 trekkers dead.

Crews rescued nine stranded Israeli tourists Thursday and three Canadians and four Indians were also pulled to safety, according to the Trekking Agencies' Association of Nepal.

The trekkers' group said it deployed helicopters to rescue hikers stranded by snow, floodwaters and avalanches along the popular Himalayan trekking trails.

At least 17 people were killed Tuesday when the snowstorm struck, but only nine bodies had been recovered as of Wednesday.

Five more bodies -- two Israelis, one Pole and two Nepalis -- were found buried in the snow Thursday, said Baburam Bhandari, chief district officer of Mustang district.

Officials did not provide a number on the people missing, but they say they fear the death toll could rise.

Tens of thousands of international visitors come to Nepal each year to explore the spectacular Himalayan Mountains, providing poor local communities with millions of dollars.

The Annapurna region is the most popular trekking area in the country and attracts many visitors.

A dozen of the trekkers who died Tuesday were found near the 5,416-meter (17,770-foot) Thorung La Pass in Mustang district, the highest point of the 21-day Annapurna Circuit trek.

Trekkers spend the night at local camps before they set out, sometimes as early as 4 a.m., to cross the iconic pass, said Bidur Kuikel of Annapurna Conservation Area project.

"On Tuesday heavy snowfall began at about 8 a.m.," he said. "There was no visibility."

Since the tracks were covered by snow, some may have fallen down. Others may have opted not to embark on the trek, so it's possible that some of the trekkers are not, in fact, missing, one official said.

"They may have rested on the way or they may yet to register after after crossing over," said Narendra Lama, a local tourism officer. "There may still be some missing."

Another five of the deaths Tuesday were in the neighboring Manang district, the army said.

This is one of the deadliest such tragedies in Nepal, a nation of about 26 million people known for its spectacular mountain ranges, including Mount Everest.

Last year, 102,000 foreigners came to the country to take part in mountaineering, the vast majority of them trekkers.