556 bodies found in Uttarakhand, hundreds may be dead

Dehradun/New Delhi, June 21 (IANS) Nearly 600 people have been killed in the Uttarakhand flood devastation, Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna has said, while ActionAid warned of thousands of possible deaths.

Four days after a clourburst almost destroyed Kedarnath, home to one of India's most revered shrines, Bahuguna told CNN-IBN news channel that 556 bodies had been found even as the military and security forces rescued a large number of those stranded in the hills.

The government has so far admitted to only about 200 deaths.

"(A total of) 556 bodies have been recovered and there are reports more could be buried under the debris," the chief minister said. "This kind of disaster has never happened in the Himalayan history."

He said it would "take a long time to rebuild Uttarakhand" and that no pilgrimage to Kedarnath would be possible for at least the next two years.

Debabrat Patra, ActionAid India's regional manager for Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, said the situation in the hill state was "catastrophic".

"Our partners in the region have reported that nearly 5,000 people are still missing in Kedarnath, presumed dead," he said, in a grim forecast of what could turn out to be one of India's worst natural disasters.

Uttarakhand saw over 60 hours of continuous and heavy rains coupled with few incidents of cloudbursts at various locations June 14 to 17, which led to the flooding of the state's main rivers: Alaknanda and Bhagirathi.

According to officials and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) activists, the largescale flooding had destroyed innumerable hamlets and villeges and led to the destruction of major areas such as Kedarnath and Ram Bada.

Vinod Kumar Sharma, who reached Dehradun Friday after being stranded with his family for four days minus food, told IANS there were 15,000 people -- locals and pilgrims besides hundreds of mules -- in Kedarnath alone when the calamity took place.

"Barring some, there is no trace of the people and animals," Sharma said. "As of today no one can give a precise figure of the dead and missing. It is impossible."

Chief Minister Bahuguna said about 30,000 people had been evacuated till now from the hills. "It is very tragic that so many people have died... It will take another 15 days to complete evacuation."

In New Delhi, Cabinet Secretary Ajit Kumar Seth put the number of those evacuated at about 50,000.

Bahuguna said the rescue operation involving the military, paramilitary forces and civilians was taking time because roads had been badly damaged.

ActionAid said nearly 75,000 pilgrims were still stranded.

Both ActionAid and the cabinet secretary warned of fresh rains in the hill state from Monday. This would further hinder the rescue operation.

Chandragupta Vikram, the VHP's Dehradun president, told IANS that human life was obliterated in Kedarnath "within just 15 minutes".

"There was a huge explosion," Vikram said. "It happened behind the Kedarnath shrine. It turned out to be a cloudburst. Suddenly the place was overwhelmed by water.

"With the water came huge boulders and tonnes of mud. It took just 15 minutes for the destruction at Kedarnath."

A disaster management official said although 45 helicopters were enagaged in rescuing people, re-fuelling was causing concern as they have to fly to Dehradun for fuelling.

"There are enough choppers. That is not the problem. The real issue is making fuel available for them, that is something that we are looking into carefully," M. Shashidhar Reddy, vice chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), told IANS.

He said no one anticipated devastation on such a huge scale.

Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde said some 50,000 people were still stranded in Uttarakhand and many could be buried in the debris across the hills.

Lt. Gen. Anil Chait of the army's Central Command said his men would do their best to rescue everyone.

"No more people will die there. We will rescue all those who are stranded. We will trudge every trail, every footpath and bring home anybody who is trapped," he told the media.

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