Rescue teams frantically searched for survivors
in India's flood-ravaged state of Uttarakhand on Friday as the death
toll exceeded 550, state disaster officials said.
More than 13,800 people were missing and another 32,000 people, many of them pilgrims, were believed to be trapped as a result of torrential monsoon rains that have triggered floods and landslides.
State disaster relief minister Jaspal Arya said the rescue operations were being carried out on a "war footing."
"Forty-five helicopters are combing areas to find people and drop food supplies, as road links are destroyed," Arya said.
Television footage showed stranded people climbing down cliffs, aided by soldiers. Around 73,000 people have been evacuated so far.
June is the peak season for pilgrimages and tourism in Uttarakhand, which has numerous Hindu temples. But this year the monsoon arrived a fortnight before schedule, causing widespread devastation.
Indian Meteorological Department officials said rescue efforts would be compounded by heavy rains expected in the region from Monday.
Uttarakhand Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna said it would take another 15 days to complete the region's evacuation.
"Our priority remains evacuation and emergency supplies to those who are stuck," said Anil Chait, an army general who is heading the operations. Army and paramilitary were trying to repair roads and make temporary bridges to restore land-links to the cut-off areas.
A private helicopter being used to rescue stranded people crashed late Friday. There were no casualties.
Kedarnath, a revered Hindu temple, had turned into a burial site, with bodies buried in the rubble surrounding the shrine.
"The centre of faith has turned into a burial ground. Bodies are scattered in the area," state agriculture minister Harak Singh Rawat told reporters.
Numerous accounts of death and devastation have emerged in the disaster's aftermath.
Radhey Shyam, a pilgrim to Kedarnath, was the sole survivor in his family, with 13 relatives killed.
"My wife, my daughter and relatives were all swept away by the floods. Nobody is alive," he told broadcaster NDTV. "Scores of people have climbed hill-slopes and are in forests, who need to be helped and rescued as soon as possible."
KB Rana's three-storey business complex was swept away by the raging Mandakini river: "I have lost all that I had, it was washed away by the floods in a matter of minutes."
Other survivors complained that locals refused them shelter while shopkeepers were fleecing them by overcharging for bottled water and biscuits.
"We were scared of dying and just kept running for our lives. We don't know how many kilometres we ran. People kept telling us to run to save our lives," another survivor said.
Angry relatives blocked roads outside the Jolly Grant airport in state capital Dehradun, protesting at the lack of help and information from authorities.
"I have been here for the past three days to get some information about my missing father and mother. But there is no official here to help us. It's an endless wait," Brajesh Singh said.
Indian media said large-scale construction, mining and huge power projects in India's northern Himalayan states had exacerbated the worst floods in the region in 60 years.
The disaster was "man-made" because environmental laws had been openly flouted in the region, broadcaster NDTV said.
"The growing frequency of extreme climactic events is emboldening the claim that hydropower projects, encroachments of riverbeds by buildings, and blasting of mountains to build roads are making hill states more susceptible to disaster," the Times of India daily said.
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