557 dead, 20,000 still stuck in Uttarakhand; more rains likely

Dehradun/New Delhi, June 22 (IANS) With heavy rains likely to hit flood-ravaged Uttarakhand again, army and paramilitary force teams rushed against time to rescue stranded people as officials Saturday put the death toll at 557 and said 20,000 people were still awaiting evacuation.

Army chief General Bikram Singh said the army was rushing its personnel with logistics, medical cover and ration to extricate people stuck in flood-hit areas in the mountainous state.

Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari, giving an update of the Uttarakhand situation, said on Saturday about 10,000 people were evacuated by the army and Indo-Tibetan Border Police, including from critical areas.

Despite bad weather, the Indian Air Force carried out 150 helicopter sorties till Saturday afternoon, said Tewari, adding that in all, 61 helicopters - 43 of IAF, 11 of the army and seven private - are engaged in the rescue and relief mission.

Tewari put the death toll at 557, with 412 injured.

The minister added that rains are likely on Monday and Tuesday, so the focus is on completing as much rescue work as possible by Sunday.

The army chief, speaking in Hyderabad, spoke of the urgency with which the relief operations were being carried out keeping in mind forecasts of inclement weather.

"The time is limited. We have got a window till tomorrow (Sunday) as the weather might get bad again. We are rushing our people. Yesterday (Friday) we landed paratroopers. We are trying to reach even those areas where there is nobody at the moment to ensure that in case anybody stuck we are able to get them off from there," the army chief said.

"We have increased the army's footprint from 500 to over 6,000 at the moment," he said.

The government also denied there was any lack of co-ordination between its agencies engaged in rescue and relief operations in Uttarakhand.

Dismissing reports of lack of co-ordination between different agencies, Tewari told media persons that there was "complete co-ordination" and "harmony" between the different agencies engaged in rescue and relief operations.

His comments came after union Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde said in Dehradun earlier Saturday that said there had been some lack of coordination between agencies in rescue work but now steps were being taken on war footing to evacuate people.

Giving details of the rescue operations, Tewari, who was flanked by officials of the army, air force, ITBP, Border Roads Organisation and NDRF said the forces were facing operational difficulties like inclement weather and bad terrain.

Cabinet Secretary Ajit Kumar Seth chaired a meeting to assess the situation Saturday afternoon, he said.

As of now, 70-80 people are stranded in worst-hit Kedarnath. The rescue forces have handed over 83 bodies to the local police in Kedarnath.

At Gaurikund, the NDRF has rescued 143 people, officials from the agency said adding 149 sadhus have refused to leave the place.

The government has tried to restore communications network in those areas, Tewari said.

According to the ITBP, 25 satellite telephones have been sent by the Tata telecom company and 50 are being bought from Congo.

Rescued pilgrims from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh began to return home. Of 399 pilgrims from Tamil Nadu, 275 were flown to Delhi, an official statement said Saturday.

They will be flown back to Chennai. A team of Tamil Nadu government officials are in Haridwar to coordinate with the Uttarakhand government to find out the whereabouts of the other 124 pilgrims

About 100 pilgrims from Andhra Pradesh reached Vijayawada from New Delhi by Kerala Express while another group of 30 reached Kazipet in Warangal district by New Delhi-Hyderabad AP Express.

For the pilgrims it was a tearful reunion with their loved ones. The relatives of the pilgrims cried and embraced them as Kerala Express halted at Vijayawada station.

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