DEHRADUN, India -- Authorities in northern India on Thursday conducted mass cremations of hundreds of people who were killed by devastating floods and landslides that struck nearly two weeks ago.
Army helicopters flew Hindu priests to the worst-hit town of Kedarnath in Uttarakhand state to conduct funeral prayers before the cremations of nearly 300 bodies that were found buried in silt near the town's main temple.
State government spokesman Amit Chandola said that authorities had airlifted tons of logs for the cremations, but that the funerals were delayed by intermittent rain. Eighteen bodies were cremated Wednesday before the rain, he said.
With the skies clearing up Thursday, the cremations resumed.
Before being cremated, each body was photographed and DNA samples were collected, Chandola said.
Kedarnath, one of four temple towns in Uttarakhand, is part of a popular Hindu pilgrimage route. Most devout Hindus make the pilgrimage at least once in their lives, and hundreds of thousands of people visit the temples during the summer before the onset of the monsoon season. This year, however, they were caught in early rains in mid-June that led to torrential floods and landslides in the Himalayan region.
Uttarakhand's chief minister, Vijay Bahuguna, has said the final death toll will exceed 1,000. Police say more than 500 people have been reported missing.
Volunteers and civic workers were cleaning out the silt and debris in Kedarnath, after the floodwaters receded from the town. Hundreds of houses and apartment buildings were washed away by strong currents that swept away everything in their path, Chandola said.
Meanwhile, air force and army troops conducted numerous sorties Thursday to rescue some 3,000 people still stranded in Badrinath and Harsil towns in the state.
Bahuguna said with the rescue operations nearly over, the state authorities had begun efforts to rebuild roads and bridges washed away in the floods. Food supplies to last two months were being sent to all the districts to prevent shortages.