Three Italians killed, two hurt in Swiss Alps avalanche: police

Picture by the Police of the Swiss Canton of Valais shows a helicopter of the Swiss Civil Defence taking off as part of rescuing operations to search for ski hikers following an avalanche near the Grand Saint Bernard pass, on February 21, 2015 (AFP Photo/) (KANTONSPOLIZEI WALLIS/AFP)

Geneva (AFP) - Three Italians were killed and two were injured when they were hit by an avalanche while skiing in an area known as "Death Valley" in the Swiss Alps on Saturday, police said.

Two women and one man died in the accident, while one man remained in serious condition and another man had been slightly injured, police in the canton of Valais said in a statement.

The five were skiing cross-country near a guesthouse in the Grand Saint-Bernard pass, not far from the Italian border, when a massive sheet of snow, measuring 80 metres (260 feet) across and up to 300 metres long (nearly 1,000 feet), dislodged and swept them away.

The accident happened shortly after 1:00 pm (1200 GMT), at an altitude of around 2,300 metres, and weather conditions and thick fog complicated the rescue operation, police said.

Rescue helicopters were forced to land further away from the avalanche site, and rescuers had to cover a greater distance on foot, police spokesman Jean-Marie Bornet told AFP.

They did manage to locate the skiers, who were all carrying avalanche victim detectors. Some were buried under as much as 2.5 metres of snow.

But four had been seriously injured and taken by helicopter to nearby hospitals, where three of them died.

"The fourth is undergoing resuscitation, so it's quite serious," Bornet said.

Around 30 rescue workers and several helicopters took part in the operation, police said.

Avalanches are taking a heavy toll in the Swiss Alps this winter season, killing at least 24 people, including Saturday's deaths, according to a count by Swiss news agency ATS.