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JOSHIMATH, India – Rescuers found bodies in the River Ganges and in the muddy, broken earth left by landslides, raising the death toll from monsoon flooding in mountainous northern India to nearly 600 Friday, officials said.
The air force dropped paratroopers, food and medicine for people trapped in up to 100 towns and villages cut off since Sunday in the Himalayan state of Uttrakhand where thousands of people are stranded, many of them Hindu pilgrims who were visiting four shrines in the area.
Uttrakhand state Chief Minister Vijay Bahguna said 556 bodies have been noticed buried deep in slush and the army was trying to recover them. He spoke to CNN-IBN television channel on Friday.
Rescuers also Friday found 40 bodies floating in the Ganges near Haridwar, a Hindu holy city, said police officer Rajiv Swaroop.
Bahguna said the eventual toll would be in the hundreds. Rakesh Sharma, another state official, had said Thursday the death toll might reach the thousands but the exact figure would not be known until the entire region is checked.
Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde told reporters in New Delhi that 34,000 people have been evacuated so far and another 50,000 were stranded in the region. Roads and bridges were washed away by the floods or blocked by debris.
Uttrakhand spokesman Amit Chandola said the rescue operation centered on evacuating nearly 27,000 people trapped in the worst-hit Kedarnath temple area -- one of the holiest Hindu temples dedicated to Lord Shiva, located atop the Garhwal Himalayan range. The temple escaped major damage, but debris covered the area around it and television images showed the bodies of pilgrims strewn around the area.
Soldiers and other workers reopened dozens of roads by building makeshift bridges, accelerating the evacuation, Chandola said. More than 2,000 vehicles carrying stranded Hindu pilgrims have moved out of the area since late Thursday, he said.
Thousands of soldiers continued efforts to reach the worst-hit towns and villages, Chandola said.
Thirty-six air force helicopters have been ferrying rescue workers, doctors, equipment, food and medicine to Kedarnath, the town closest to many of those stranded, said Priya Joshi, an air force spokeswoman. Another seven aircraft carried paratroopers and fuel to the region.
Hundreds of people looking for relatives demonstrated in Dehradun, the Uttrakhand state capital, where flood survivors were taken by helicopters. They complained that the government was taking too long to evacuate the survivors, with small helicopters bringing in four to five people at a time.
Jasveer Kaur, a 50-year-old housewife, said she and her family survived by taking shelter in a Sikh shrine, which withstood the flood, located in Govind Dham.
"There was destruction all around," said Kaur after she was evacuated by an air force helicopter. "It was a nightmare."
Google has launched an application, Person Finder, to help trace missing people in Uttarakhand. The version is available in both Hindi and English languages, according to a Google India blog.
The annual monsoon rains sustain India's agriculture but also cause flooding that claims lives and damages property. Neighboring Uttar Pradesh state said 17 flood-related deaths occurred there since the heavy rains Sunday.