DEHRADUN, India (AFP) – Bad weather hampered rescue operations in rain-ravaged northern India where up to 1,000 people are feared to have died in landslides and flash floods that have left pilgrims and tourists stranded in remote mountains without food or water.
So far 557 bodies have been found after torrential rains struck the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand on June 15, flooding the Ganges river and devastating an area known as the "Land of the Gods" for its revered Hindu shrines.
More than 20,000 people were cut off in remote areas with the full extent of the loss of life only likely to emerge after flood waters recede and rescue workers reach isolated areas, officials said.
"The death toll could be more than 750 -- maybe around 1,000," Uttarakhand chief minister Vijay Bahuguna said in the state capital Dehradun late Saturday.
Raging rivers have swept away houses, buildings and entire villages. Dozens of helicopters and thousands of soldiers have been deployed to help people trapped across the state.
But air operations had to be suspended on Sunday due to rain and overcast conditions over the pilgrimage sites of Kedarnath and Badrinath as well as Rishikesh, which is popular with adventure tourists for its white-river rafting.
Twenty trekkers including six Americans were rescued Saturday after they were marooned near a remote glacier, while the army managed to make contact with nearly 1,000 people stuck in mountains near Kedarnath.
Weather permitting, two aircraft were to transport a medical team and equipment to set up an emergency "mini hospital" in the region, Indian Air Force spokeswoman Priya Joshi told AFP.
Around 120 bodies were recovered from the Kedarnath temple complex and more were feared to be lying in nearby jungle where tourists took refuge after hotels and other buildings collapsed in the deluge.
The Times of India newspaper said some people had died of hunger and illness when relief failed to reach them in time.
"Mostly the young survived. But many had to see their loved ones die a slow death in front of their eyes," it quoted a rescue worker as saying.
For the 22,000 stranded people, it has been a grim battle of survival against the odds, an army rescue worker who did not want to be named told AFP.
"They have been stuck for more than five days without food or water. Temperatures have been dipping sharply in the night but they do not have any shelter," he said.
Rescuers hoped to evacuate more people on Sunday after road links to several areas were reopened.
Distraught relatives clutching photographs of missing family members have been waiting for days outside Dehradun airport for news of their loved ones.
The military operation, involving around 50 helicopters and more than 10,000 soldiers, was focused on reaching those stranded in the holy town of Badrinath after earlier finding widespread devastation in the Kedarnath temple area.
Special trains and buses have been pressed into service to bring tourists home while medical and food supplies were being flown to stranded people.
In the adjacent state of Himachal Pradesh, 20 people have been killed and around 1,200 tourists remained stranded in remote rain-hit regions.
The Kinnaur district has seen heavy damage with power cut off to large areas and roads washed away.
Floods and landslides from monsoon rains have also struck neighbouring Nepal, leaving at least 39 people dead, according to the government in Kathmandu.