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India floods hit thousands; more than 200 dead

Associated Press
In this Thursday June 20, 2013 photo, the Kedarnath shrine, one of the holiest of Hindu temples dedicated to Lord Shiva, and other buildings around it are seen damaged following monsoon rains in at Kedarnath in the northern Indian state of Uttrakhand. A joint army and air force operation are trying to evacuate thousands of people stranded in the upper reaches of the state of Uttrakhand where days of rain had earlier washed out houses, temples, hotels and vehicles leading to deaths of over a hundred people amid fears that the death toll may rise much higher. (AP Photo)
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LUCKNOW, India (AP) — Rescuers found 40 bodies floating in the River Ganges near a Hindu holy city on Friday, sending the death toll past 200 from flooding in northern India that has stranded tens of thousands of people, mostly Hindu pilgrims, since heavy monsoon rains began about a week ago.

The Indian air force dropped paratroopers, food and medicine for people trapped in up to 100 towns and villages cut off by monsoon rains and landslides in the northern Himalayas.

India's Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde put the official death toll in Uttrakhand state at 207, but that was expected to rise as authorities reach cut-off areas. The 40 bodies discovered in the Ganges were near the city of Haridwar, police officer Rajiv Swaroop said.

Shinde told reporters in New Delhi that 34,000 people have been evacuated so far and another 50,000 were stranded in the region. Most are Hindu pilgrims who were visiting four revered shrines.

Uttrakhand state spokesman Amit Chandola said the rescue operation centered on evacuating nearly 27,000 people trapped in the worst-hit Kedarnath temple area — one of the holiest Hindu temples dedicated to Lord Shiva, located atop the Garhwal Himalayan range. The temple escaped major damage, but debris covered the area around it and television images showed the bodies of pilgrims strewn around the area.

Soldiers and other workers reopened dozens of roads by building makeshift bridges, accelerating the evacuation, Chandola said. More than 2,000 vehicles carrying stranded Hindu pilgrims have moved out of the area since late Thursday, he said.

Thousands of soldiers continued efforts to reach the worst-hit towns and villages, Chandola said.

Rakesh Sharma, a state official, said the death toll might run into the thousands, but the exact figure will not be known until the entire region is checked.

The flooding washed away roads and nearly two dozen bridges, demolished 365 houses and partially damaged 275 others in Uttrakhand, the state government said. An additional 17 people died in collapsed homes in neighboring Uttar Pradesh state, said R.L. Vishwakarma, a state police officer.

Thirty-six air force helicopters have been ferrying rescue workers, doctors, equipment, food and medicine to Kedarnath, the town closest to many of those stranded, said Priya Joshi, an air force spokeswoman. Another seven aircraft carried paratroopers and fuel to the region.

On Friday, hundreds of people looking for relatives demonstrated in Dehradun, the Uttrakhand state capital, where flood survivors were taken by helicopters. They complained that the government was taking too long to evacuate the survivors, with small helicopters bringing in four to five people at a time.

The annual monsoon rains sustain India's agriculture but also cause flooding that routinely claims lives and damages property.

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