An avalanche swept over a group of European climbers in the French Alps on Thursday, killing at least nine people including three Britons, and leaving four missing.
Hours after ths disaster rescuers from France and Italy were still searching for the four still unaccounted for following the early morning avalanche on Mont Maudit, which translates as "Cursed Mountain", officials said.
"The toll at this stage is nine dead," local prefect Philippe de Rumigny told AFP.
Among the dead, as well as the three British climbers, were three Germans, two Spaniards and a Swiss, local police Colonel Bertrand Francois said.
The four missing climbers were believed to be two Britons and two Spaniards, officials said.
Nine more climbers were lightly injured and treated at a local hospital.
Italian rescuers were brought in to assist France's PGHM high-mountain group in the search in the Mont Blanc massif at a height of more than 4,000 metres (13,100 feet).
"We are providing teams, including rescue dogs," Delfino Viglione, local director of mountain rescue for the border patrol police, said on Italian news channel SkyTG24.
"It is a tough, steep part of the mountain. The wind probably led to an accumulation of snow that dislodged when the climbers passed," he said.
"Mont Blanc can be problematic even in the summer. You should never lower your guard. Unfortunately these tragedies happen often," he said.
Interior Minister Manuel Valls said he was heading to the scene to oversee operations.
"Searches are still underway to find the missing," he said in a statement. "The interior minister wants to assure the families of his deep sympathy and full support."
One of the injured sounded the alert at around 0325 GMT after the avalanche on Mont Maudit, the massif's third-highest peak, which rises to an altitude of 4,465 metres (14,650 feet) and is considered one of the more difficult paths to climbing Mont Blanc.
Officials said the victims had been in a group of 28 people, including guides, who had left a base at 3,600 metres at around 1:30 am local time (2330 GMT Wednesday) for the climb.
Rumigny said it was believed that a "40-centimetre (16-inch) sheet came loose" from the mountainside during the climb, prompting the avalanche.
Francois said it was believed a climber had caused the sheet of snow and ice to break off.
Weather service Meteo France said there were strong winds in the area on Thursday, reaching up to 70 kilometres (43 miles) per hour.
It is the deadliest climbing disaster in France since August 2008, when eight climbers -- four Germans, three Swiss and an Austrian guide -- were swept away after blocks of ice broke off Mont Blanc du Tacul, prompting an avalanche.
Thousands of tourists flock to the French Alps every year for sports including mountain climbing and skiing, but every year some fall victim to accidents.
A Norwegian cross-country skier died in April after being caught up in an avalanche on Mont Blanc, only about a month after a Canadian skier died after plunging into a 20-metre (65-foot) crevice on the mountain.
Rescue workers are often called in to assist stranded climbers or skiers.
Source: AFP European Edition