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India intensifies rescue efforts as monsoon toll nears 600

DEHRADUN, India: Relief teams were racing against time yesterday to rescue tens of thousands of stranded people in rain-ravaged northern India as the death toll from flash floods and landslides neared 600.
Rescuers have recovered scores of bodies from the swollen Ganges river with the government saying more than 30,000 people were still stranded after torrential monsoon rains struck the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand last week.
Raging rivers have swept away houses, buildings and entire villages, and destroyed bridges and narrow roads leading to towns in the mountainous state.
Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde, who arrived in state capital Dehradun yesterday, said 73,000 people had been rescued so far with up to 32,000 still stranded.
“At least 550 people have died and 392 people are injured,” he told reporters, and urged authorities to complete the rescue work inside three days since fresh downpours were expected.
He also said steps were being taken up on a “war footing” to deal with the “national crisis.”
Dozens of helicopters and thousands of soldiers have been deployed to rescue people trapped across the flood-devastated state.
The family of Kavita Tyagi, 26, stranded near the historical site of Badrinath for more than a week, recounted their ordeal after they were air-lifted by army choppers to Gauchar, a hill town in Chamoli district of the state.
“We had been stuck for more than a week. We ran out of food and all our money. My three-year-old son is with me and we can’t describe the harrowing times that we have faced,” she told AFP, her voice choked.
“My mother and brother are still to be evacuated since the chopper could accommodate only eight people. We are now just praying that they too land safely,” Tyagi said.
Rescue teams were bracing for more challenges with further downpours expected in the state today.
“The weather is already packing up. We are expecting fresh rains from tomorrow and that is why we are speeding up our operations,” Priya Joshi, spokeswoman of the Indian Air Force, told AFP.
A group of 20 trekkers including six Americans were rescued yesterday after they were marooned near a remote glacier since the rains struck last week.
“They were on a trekking trip but got trapped because of the landslides and flash floods. The chopper has landed there now and they are all safe,” Neeraj Khairwal, a top official of Pithoragarh district, told AFP.
Also yesterday, the army managed to make contact with nearly 1,000 people stuck in mountains near Kedarnath, a local TV reported.
Distraught relatives clutching photographs of missing family members have been waiting for days outside Dehradun Airport hoping for news of their loved ones.