North India floods: Army leads rescue operations

Indian army officials help travellers and villagers up a steep slope after they were stranded by the rising floodwaters of the River Alaknanda near Govindghat, Chamoli District in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand on June 18 Thousands of pilgrims are stranded after roads caved in

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Military helicopters and the army are leading rescue operations in India's flood-hit northern states, where 138 people are now known to have died.

About 10,000 people have been rescued in worst-hit Uttarakhand state over three days, PM Manmohan Singh said.

Tens of thousands of pilgrims are still stranded in Uttarakhand, where more than 100 people have been killed.

Flood-related deaths have also been reported in Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh states and neighbouring Nepal.

At least 22 people have been killed and 18 are missing in landslides and floods triggered by heavy rainfall in remote parts of Nepal, home ministry spokesman Shankar Koirala told the AFP news agency.

He said that more than 100 homes - mostly in western Nepal - had been damaged by the floods and the government had agreed to step up relief efforts at an emergency meeting.

AT THE SCENE

The scale of devastation in Uttarakhand is staggering. As rescuers establish contact with more of the affected villages and settlements, they say many have been flattened to the ground.

On Wednesday, Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna flew over Kedarnath, Guptkashi, Govindghat and Joshimath areas to assess the damage.

Most of the temple town of Kedarnath - apart from the main Shiva temple - is buried under mud and debris. There are scenes of devastation everywhere. Officials said it would take at least three to four years to get the town back on its feet.

Many of the villages remain cut off with emergency workers unable to reach marooned villages. There are are reported to be groups of people stranded in remote areas without any supplies. Most roads are still closed and many bridges, homes, schools and hotels have been damaged, hampering the relief operation.

The monsoon season generally lasts from June to September, bringing rain which is critical to the farming output of both countries, but this year the rain in the north of India and parts of Nepal has been heavier than usual.

'Distressing'

On Wednesday afternoon, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi flew over Uttarakhand to assess the damage caused by the floods.

Mr Singh later described the situation there as "distressing" and announced a 10bn rupee ($170m; £127m) aid package for the state.

"The maximum devastation has been in [the temple town of] Kedarnath and its vicinity," he said. "The priority is to rescue the stranded and provide urgently needed succour to those most needing it."

Mr Singh said in Uttarakhand, 102 people had died, but he feared that "the loss of lives could eventually be much higher".

Meanwhile, more than 5,500 soldiers and hundreds of paramilitary and disaster management officials are working to rescue and provide emergency supplies to thousands of tourists and pilgrims stranded in towns and temples.

Military officials said five airbases were being used to help speed up rescue operations.

The situation in Uttarakhand was "really very bad", top disaster management official Piyush Rautela was quoted as telling news agency AFP.

The floods have swept away buildings and triggered landslides in some places, blocking roads. More than 20 bridges have collapsed.

Portions of a Hindu temple in Kedarnath were washed away and the shrine was "submerged in mud and slush", Uttarakhand disaster relief minister Jaspal Arya said.

India's Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde said more than 62,000 pilgrims were stranded at various places.

'Harrowing trip'

Most of the pilgrims - bound for local Himalayan shrines - are stranded in Rudraprayag, Chamoli and Uttarkashi districts after roads caved in and bridges collapsed.

Some of the pilgrims who are stranded in a guest house in Joshimath town spoke to the BBC Hindi's Shalini Joshi about their ordeal.

"We were stuck in the car for 14 hours, we spent the entire night there. The mountains were collapsing above us, while a river in spate was raging below us," Delhi resident Asha Mahajan said.

A view of the Hindu holy town of Kedarnath from a helicopter after a flood, in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, India, Tuesday, June 18, 2013 The temple town of Kedarnath is among the worst affected, officials say

"There was a huge traffic jam, we could neither go forward, nor move back. Anything could have happened. It was raining heavily and we were afraid that there might be a landslide. Thank God we are all right," she added.

"This is the first time we've come to the mountains. But we're now stuck in Joshimath. We are so close to the holy shrine of Badrinath, but we've been told not to go there. It makes me really said, but what can we do? If I survive, I'll come back here," said Dineshbhai Kishanbhai Patel who is visiting from the western state of Gujarat.

"It's been a harrowing trip for us," said Trilochan Singh from Mumbai city. "We hear the roads are all broken, cars and shops have been swept away. It is frightening. We are very lucky to be alive."

Local officials told the BBC that the number of dead was expected to rise as rescue workers had still not reached many affected areas.

In Himachal Pradesh, where at least 10 people have been killed in landslides, Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh was himself stranded in Kinnaur district for nearly 60 hours.

He was evacuated on Tuesday by a helicopter hired by his Congress party, reports said.

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