REUTERS - An avalanche that swept down a mountain near a small winter resort killed 10 climbers in northeast Turkey on Sunday, but seven of their companions survived the crush, a government minister said.
Rescue teams worked through the afternoon to retrieve survivors and bodies from the 17-person group which had set out on a hike from the village of Zigana in mountainous Gumushane province, near Turkey's Black Sea coast.
Orange-clad search teams and locals equipped with shovels and accompanied by dogs continued to scour the snowy slopes as the light faded.
"Unfortunately we lost 10 of our friends. Two of our friends are in hospital and five escaped without being caught by the avalanche," Housing Minister Faruk Nafiz Ozak said after arriving at the scene.
"This is a great loss, a major incident. My condolences to our nation," the minister said in comments broadcast on Turkish television channels.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan called the local governor for information on the rescue operation, state-run Anatolian news agency reported.
The group belonged to a climbing club based in the neighbouring Black Sea province of Trabzon. The avalanche occurred at around 11:15 am (0915 GMT).
One of the survivors, 60-year-old Rahmi Keles, said he saw the avalanche approaching but, unable to escape, was pulled under it. He managed to clear the snow from his face and shout to a fellow, female climber for help.
"I had no chance of getting out alone. She forked out the snow and released first my left, then my right leg. Without Yonca I would not have survived. Thank God she was brought up like an angel," he told Anatolian from his hospital bed in the coastal town of Trabzon.
Speculating about the cause of the avalanche, witnesses told Turkish television they heard a couple of gunshots before it happened. However, a local governor said they could have mistaken the sound of the avalanche beginning for gunfire.
Television footage from the region showed military personnel and locals struggling to carry one climber lying on a sheet through deep snow. Broadcasters showed medics placing a climber with a neck brace into an ambulance which raced off to hospital.
One local official told CNN Turk television that the temperature in the region had been higher than the seasonal average in recent days.
Many parts of Turkey are mountainous and although still a minority interest, winter sports are becoming increasingly popular in mountain ranges across the country.
Three people were killed in an avalanche in the Scottish Highlands on Saturday.