India searches for 24 students washed away in river surge

A parent points to a photograph of a missing student, feared drowned in the Beas River in India's northern Himachal Pradesh state, published in a local newspaper at the VNR Vignan Jyothi Institute of Engineering and Technology campus in the Bachupall
A parent points to a photograph of a missing student, feared drowned in the Beas River in India's northern Himachal Pradesh state, published in a local newspaper at the VNR Vignan Jyothi Institute of Engineering and Technology campus in the Bachupally outskirts of Hyderabad on June 9, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

SHIMLA, India (AFP) - Rescuers discovered five bodies on Monday in a river in northern India as they stepped up their search for 24 students washed away in a sudden surge of water released from a dam.

The students were standing on the Beas river's edge on Sunday evening taking photographs in the northeast Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh when they were hit by a wall of water.

"In the morning five bodies have been found in the Beas river as rescue teams continue to search downstream," senior state government official Pankaj Rai told CNN-IBN news channel.

Soldiers, police and other rescue workers were seen combing the banks of the river, while others in kayaks were paddling slowly downstream, checking around boulders.

Television footage showed soldiers carrying a body bag from the river to a waiting jeep on the road above. Divers have also been called in, an official said.

Some 50 engineering students were travelling on buses to the tourist hill station of Manali when they stopped in the Kullu Valley, some 200 kilometres (130 miles) from state capital Shimla, officials have said.

Teachers and fellow students, from an engineering college in the southern city of Hyderabad, told how they screamed at the group about the torrent of water which appeared without warning.

"I did not walk down to the river but saw the sudden rise of the water and screamed to the students to run but the waters quickly engulfed and swept them away," college staff member A. Aditya said CNN-IBN.

"We saw a wall of water hit those who were on the banks. They fell flat and disappeared under the waves," one of the students told the Indian Express newspaper.

The surge of water occurred when a hydroelectric power project opened its floodgates, sending tonnes of water downstream, officials have said.

Anger is mounting about whether any warning was given before the water's release, with local media reporting protests late Sunday by residents on the road above where the accident occurred.

Parents of the missing students, along with Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh and a string of other top politicians, were travelling Monday to the accident site.

Himachal Pradesh and other Himalayan states, including neighbouring Uttarakhand, are home to a string of hydroelectric projects as India rushes to expand power generation to meet rising demand.