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Rescuers, food sent to flood-hit India shrine area

Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) personnel, in uniform, help stranded pilgrims on a makeshift bridge cross a stream of gushing floodwater in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, India.

AP Photo

Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) personnel, in uniform, help stranded pilgrims on a makeshift bridge cross a stream of gushing floodwater in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, India.

JOSHIMATH, India (AP) — Rescuers on Friday found 40 bodies floating in the River Ganges near a Hindu holy city hit by heavy monsoon flooding that has killed more than 200 people and stranded tens of thousands, mostly pilgrims, in mountainous northern India.

The Indian air force dropped paratroopers, food and medicine for people trapped in up to 100 towns and villages cut off by monsoon rains and landslides since Sunday.

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The official death toll in Uttrakhand state was 207, according to Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde, but it was expected to rise as authorities reached cut-off areas. The 40 bodies discovered in the Ganges were near the city of Haridwar, police officer Rajiv Swaroop said.

Shinde told reporters in New Delhi that 34,000 people have been evacuated so far and another 50,000 were stranded in the region. Most are Hindu pilgrims who were visiting four revered shrines.

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.

Rakesh Sharma, a state official, said the death toll might run into the thousands, but the exact figure will not be known until the entire region is checked.

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.

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