India preps mass cremation for monsoon flooding victims

Damaged houses are seen following monsoon rains in Shrinagar, India, June 25, 2013.

GAUCHAR, India Authorities prepared Tuesday to cremate the bodies of hundreds of people who perished in monsoon flooding in northern India, as soldiers attempted to rescue tourists and pilgrims who remained stranded in a remote town.

Truckloads of wooden logs were loaded onto air force transport planes and flown to the temple town of Kedarnath to be used in a mass funeral and cremation for the flood victims.

Troops are also trying to rescue about 5,000 people who remain stranded in Badrinath town eight days after torrential rains triggered landslides and flooding in Uttarakhand state.

Bad weather has hampered rescue efforts, with air force helicopters unable to take off due to poor visibility, Group Capt. Sandeep Mehta said.

"There is a dense cloud cover over the mountains and we've had to suspend helicopter rescue sorties," Mehta said.

Later Tuesday, a rescue helicopter returning from the flooded region crashed, killing at least eight people. No further details on the crash were immediately available.

So far the army has rescued about 90,000 people from hundreds of villages and small towns hit by the floods. Entire towns were flattened by landslides that were followed by floods. Roads were washed away and telecommunication links snapped, cutting off many parts of the state.

In the town of Gauchar, the center of rescue and relief operations, authorities made arrangements to send about a dozen Hindu priests to Kedarnath.

At least 600 bodies were found buried in silt in and around the Kedarnath temple, one of Hinduism's most revered pilgrim sites.

Health experts say there are dangers of disease outbreaks unless the bodies are cremated. Medical teams are taking DNA samples and photographs of the unidentified bodies before they are cremated.

The federal health ministry said Tuesday it has sent more than 1 million chlorine tablets to purify drinking water supplies in Uttarakhand. The ministry has also sent several teams of doctors to help flood survivors.

Every summer, hundreds of thousands of devout Hindus make a pilgrimage known as the Char Dham Yatra to four temple towns in Uttarakhand. The pilgrims usually return before monsoon rains begin in July. But this year they were caught by unprecedented heavy rains and flash floods.