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1,000 killed in Indian monsoon flash floods and landslides: Official

NEW DELHI (AFP) - Around 1,000 people are now known to have died in devastating flash floods and landslides triggered by monsoon rains in northern India, a top disaster official said Monday.

"The official information with us is that about 1,000 people have died," Yashpal Arya, the disaster relief minister for the worst-hit state of Uttarakhand, told AFP.

"It is difficult to say if the toll is higher because our focus is currently on rescuing those stranded," he added.

Indian priests were preparing to cremate hundreds of victims of the disaster even as 8,000 mainly pilgrims and tourists were still awaiting rescue nine days after flash floods and landslides hit the state of Uttarakhand.

“The official information with us is that about 1,000 people have died,” Yashpal Arya, the disaster relief minister for Uttarakhand, told AFP. Senior officials warned that the death toll could rise above 1,000 as flood waters recede and debris is cleared by emergency workers, showing the full extent of the disaster in the mountainous region, known as the “Land of the Gods” for its revered Hindu shrines.

Raging rivers have swept away houses, buildings and even entire villages in the state, which was packed with travellers in what is a peak tourist season.  More than 1,000 bridges have been damaged along with roads, cutting off hard-hit villages and towns. 

A doctor recounted a harrowing ordeal of walking with his family for 20 kilometres (12 miles) at night on a road strewn with bodies trapped under rocks from landslides to try to escape the devastation.J.P. Semwal and his wife and two children trekked from the town of Kedarnath to another town from where they were airlifted to Dehradun. “We followed the bodies that littered the route because we knew the bodies were of those who tried to escape earlier to safety,” Dr Semwal, 65, told AFP.

Preparations were under way for a mass cremation in the holy town of Kedarnath and elsewhere, with rescue workers ordered to collect tonnes of fire wood, amid concerns of an outbreak of disease from rotting bodies, officials said. 

“The priests of temples have been requested to participate in the final rites,” disaster management official K.N. Pandey told AFP.

Bad weather has grounded military helicopters, hampering the evacuation of people still stranded, many without food and water. Helicopters and thousands ofsoldiers have been deployed to help with the rescue efforts, with thousands of people already evacuated since the rains hit on June 15.

Soldiers along with the Indo-Tibetan Border Police have been using harnesses and erecting rope bridges across flooded rivers as part of efforts to movepeople to safety. Floods and landslides from monsoon rains have also struck neighbouring Nepal, leaving at least 39 people dead, according to the government in Kathmandu. The monsoon, which covers the subcontinent from June to September, usually brings flooding. But the heavy rains arrived early this year, catching many by surprise and exposing a lack of preparedness.