India monsoon death toll reaches 600

The death toll from flash floods and landslides neared 600.

Rescuers have recovered scores of bodies from the swollen Ganges river with nearly 63 000 people, mainly pilgrims and tourists, still stranded or missing after torrential monsoon rains struck the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, officials said.

Raging rivers have swept away houses, buildings and entire villages, and destroyed bridges and narrow roads leading to pilgrimage towns in the mountainous state, which is known as the "Land of the Gods" for its revered Hindu shrines. "575 bodies have been recovered so far but the toll is likely to go up.

As per our records, 62 790 people are still stranded," Uttarakhand home secretary Om Prakash told AFP on Saturday. A seven-member team of doctors and officials was on its way to the popular Hindu pilgrimage site of Kedarnath "to collect the bodies lying there", Prakash added.

Dozens of helicopters and thousands of soldiers have been deployed to rescue the trapped people, almost one week after the rains hit. TV images showed paratroopers rappelling from military choppers to assist in rescue operations. Rescue teams were bracing for more challenges with further downpours expected in the state and also in parts of central India from Sunday onwards.

"We are running against time," Ajay Chaddha, chief of the army unit overseeing rescue operations in the state, was quoted as saying by the Times of India on Saturday. The Indian Express said rescuers had a "narrow window of just 48 hours" to complete their operations with bad weather expected from Sunday night. 

Stuck in the mountains
Meanwhile, a group of 20 trekkers including six Americans were rescued on Saturday after they were trapped near a remote glacier since the rains struck last week. "They were on a trekking trip but got trapped because of the landslides and flash floods.

The chopper has landed there now and they are all safe," Neeraj Khairwal, a top official of Pittorgarh district, told AFP. Also Saturday, the army managed to make contact with nearly 1 000 people stuck in mountains near Kedarnath, the NDTV news network reported. "This kind of disaster has never happened in Himalayan history," state Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna said on Friday.

He attacked the India Meteorological Department (IMD) for not issuing adequate warning ahead of the heavy rains, which struck earlier than expected, saying the local government was unable to prepare for the deluge and evacuate people on time.

"The IMD warning was not clear enough," he said, adding that it would take another 15 days to evacuate all the tourists. Distraught relatives clutching photographs of missing family members have been waiting for days outside Dehradun airport hoping for news of their loved ones. Amit Thakur (40) said his 11-year-old nephew had been missing since their family-run hotel collapsed last week.

"I just hope the army will trace our little boy. I have been standing outside the airport for the last three days to get any information about him," Thakur told AFP. The military operation, involving some 50 helicopters and more than 10 000 soldiers, was focused on reaching those stranded in the holy town of Badrinath after earlier finding widespread devastation in the Kedarnath temple area.

Home ministry spokesman Kuldeep Singh Dhatwalia told AFP late on Friday: "Our soldiers have rescued more than 50 000 people, including around 16 000 people who were evacuated today." Another 17 people have been killed in the adjacent state of Himachal Pradesh, a senior government official said.

Floods and landslides from monsoon rains have also struck neighbouring Nepal, leaving at least 39 people dead, the Nepalese government said. Pictures showed pilgrims, aided by soldiers, using ropes and makeshift ladders to climb down cliffs and cross rivers.

Rescue workers who managed to reach those stranded were racing to cut down trees and clear vegetation to allow military helicopters to land and evacuate those most in need, a state official said.

"Thousands of tourists are waiting in the dense forests. They had all taken refuge in the jungle after hotels and other buildings collapsed," the state's principal secretary Rakesh Sharma said. "We are trying all possible ways to rescue them.

Roads are totally destroyed." Federal Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde and a senior leader of the main opposition Bhartiya Janata Party, Narendra Modi, were Saturday due to undertake an aerial survey of the state. – AFP

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