Rescuers rush against time in ravaged Uttarakhand; toll 557

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

Army chief General Bikram Singh said the army was rushing its personnel with logistics, medical cover and rations to extricate people stuck in flood-hit areas in the mountainous state keeping in mind bad weather predictions for Monday.

Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari, giving an update of the situation in the hill state, 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.

He also said there was "absolute and complete coordination" between various agencies active in relief operations.

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

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

"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.

ITBP spokesman Deepak K. Pandey said over 9,500 people were still trapped in Kedarnath and the Badrinath region.

He said around 8,000 were estimated to be stranded in Badrinath region.

He said a new ropeway has been installed at Lambagar, about 10 km from Badrinath, to rescue people.

Pandey said stranded people were being brought to Govindghat and then taken to Joshimath on bus and other vehicles. In Joshimath, names of rescued people are being noted before sending them for onward journey to Dehradun, Haridwar and Rishikesh.

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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