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ROME — A large chunk of Alpine glacier broke loose Sunday afternoon and slid down a mountainside in Italy, sending ice, snow and rock slamming into hikers on a popular trail on the peak killing at least five and injuring eight, authorities said.

Italian RAI state television said the fatalities numbered six, but that death toll couldn’t immediately be confirmed. It wasn’t immediately known how many hikers might be missing.

The National Alpine and Cave Rescue Corps tweeted that the search of the involved area of Marmolada peak involved at least five helicopters and rescue dogs.

“There are five dead among the people hit by the detachment of the serac,’’ the emergency service’s tweet said, referring to a technical term for a pinnacle of a glacier. “There are eight injured, two of them in grave condition.”

The SUEM dispatch service, which is based in the nearby Veneto region, said 18 people who were above the area where the ice struck will be evacuated by the Alpine rescue corps.

The dispatch service said the avalanche consisted of a “pouring down of snow, ice and rock.”

Marmolada, towering about 3,300 meters (about 11,000 feet), is the highest peak in the eastern Dolomites.

“A breaking away of rock provoked the opening of a crevasse on the glacier, leaving about 15 people involved,’’ the emergency dispatchers tweeted.

The Alpine rescue service said in a tweet that the segment broke off near Punta Rocca (Rock Point), “along the itinerary normally used to reach the peak.”

It wasn’t immediately clear what caused the section of ice to break away and rush down the peak’s slope. But the intense heat wave gripping Italy since late June could be a factor, Walter Milan, an Alpine rescue service spokesperson told RAI state TV.

“The heat is unusual,’’ Milan said, noting that temperatures in recent days on the peak had topped 10 C (50 F). ”That’s extreme heat” for the peak, Milan said. “Clearly it’s something abnormal.”

The injured were flown to several hospitals in the regions of Trentino-Alto Adige and Veneto, according to rescue services.

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