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RISHIKESH, India (AFP) – Torrential rains have triggered flash floods and landslides in northern India, leaving at least 60 people feared dead and thousands stranded after the monsoon covered the country ahead of schedule, officials said Tuesday.
Authorities have called in military helicopters to try to rescue marooned residents and pilgrims after homes and roads were washed away in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, officials said.
"We are unable to confirm the number of deaths since most of the communication lines have broken down across the state," the minister for disaster and relief in Uttarakhand said.
"But at least 60 people are feared dead and nearly 50,000 are stranded," Yashpal Arya told AFP.
River water levels are continuing to rise across the state, clogging roads and leaving hundreds of pilgrims stranded on their way to visit Hindu shrines, officials said.
Television footage showed bridges, houses and other buildings crashing down and being washed away by the swirling waters. A swollen river is seen engulfing a giant statue of Lord Shiva in the tourist city of Rishikesh in Uttarakhand.
Fresh rains in Uttarakhand were hampering rescue efforts, with teams from the national disaster management authority camping in the popular pilgrimage town of Haridwar awaiting air lift to the worst-affected districts, officials said.
The state government was also readying food parcels and drinking water to be dropped by helicopters to remote villages cut-off by the torrential rains.
"The situation is very grim. The meteorological office has predicted that the rain will continue for another three days at least," government official Amit Chandola was quoted by television stations as saying.
In the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh, at least eight people were feared dead, a local police official told AFP by telephone.
A few villages close to the border with China have also seen unseasonal snowfall, leaving dozens of shepherds and thousands of sheep stranded, a village headman told AFP.
India's farming sector depends on the annual monsoon, which lashes the subcontinent from June to September, usually bringing some flooding.
But the monsoon has arrived early this year, catching many by surprise. The country has received 68 percent more rain than normal for this time of year, data from the India Meteorological Department shows.
The normal expected rainfall in the country from June 1 to June 17 is 67.2 millimetres, but 112.9 millimetres of rain has been measured so far, the data showed.