By Gopal Sharma
KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Nepali rescue helicopters searched on Monday for at least three foreign climbers missing on a Himalayan mountain after a weekend avalanche swept away camps and killed 11 people in the worst such disaster in Nepal in nearly two decades.
Seven French climbers were among the 11 victims of the avalanche that struck their camp on Mount Manaslu, the world's eighth-highest mountain at 8,163 meters (26,781 feet). Two German climbers and one each from Spain and Nepal also died.
"Everything looked destroyed at the site," said Nima Nuru Sherpa, a tour operator who organized the expedition for the French climbers and who helped fly their bodies back to Kathmandu on Monday.
"We couldn't see any tents or any belongings of the climbers," he told Reuters on his return.
The three missing climbers are believed to be two French nationals and a Canadian, Basanta Bahadur Kunwar, deputy superintendent of police, said by telephone from the area.
Five more people who were rescued were flown back from the mountain's base camp to Kathmandu on Monday. Two of them, Italians, walked from the helicopter but they declined to speak to reporters. Six bodies were flown back in a separate helicopter and taken to a hospital.
Eight more climbers, who were unhurt, were still at their base camp in the Gorkha district in northwestern Nepal. Some of them might continue their climbs, Kunwar said.
Helicopters ferried five rescued climbers to Kathmandu on Sunday. One of them, a German, died while being treated in hospital, taking the number of Germans killed to two.
Officials said the disaster would be a blow to tourism, which is an important source of revenue for a country recovering from a decade of civil war.
"This is not good for mountaineering. It has made us alert about how to manage the size of the expeditions and avoid casualties," Tourism Ministry official Surendra Sapkota said.
In 1995, at least 42 people were killed in heavy snowfall and avalanches in the Mount Everest region, the last major disaster.
Sapkota said 232 foreign climbers had been granted permission to climb Mount Manaslu in the autumn climbing season that started in September. There are more than 150 guides and support staff with them.
Climbing and trekking are major tourism activities in Nepal, home to eight of the world's 14 highest mountains, including Mount Everest. Tourism accounts for four percent of Nepal's gross domestic product.
(Editing by Matthias Williams and Robert Birsel)