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20 bodies found in India rescue helicopter crash

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RAFIQ MAQBOOL | June 26, 2013 09:45 AM EST | AP

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GAUCHAR, India — Paramilitary soldiers on Wednesday recovered 20 bodies from a steep hillside in northern India where a helicopter crashed while on a mission to rescue people stranded in monsoon floods, the country's air force chief said.

The helicopter crashed late Tuesday when its rotor blades hit the hillside while returning with survivors of flooding and landslides that have killed more than 1,000 people and washed away thousands of homes, roads and bridges since mid-June in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand.

Soldiers using ropes reached the crash site Wednesday and found the bodies of 20 people, including five air force crew members, Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne told reporters.

The helicopter's cockpit voice recorder was recovered and an inquiry has been ordered to determine the cause of the crash, Browne said.

Some 45 aircraft have been used in rescue and relief operations, but intermittent rain and dense fog have dogged the efforts since Sunday.

Browne visited the hill town of Gauchar, the center of the rescue and relief operations, and assured flood survivors that helicopters would rescue everyone stranded in Uttarakhand despite the bad weather.

Around 2,000 people were still stranded in the towns of Badrinath and Harsil 10 days after torrential rains triggered the flooding and landslides.

Soldiers have been clearing roads and on Wednesday the army was able to transport many people out of Badrinath, said Ajay Chadha, chief of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, a paramilitary force.

"Air force helicopters made several sorties today, but poor visibility and bad weather are posing a problem. We can conduct rescue efforts only when the skies clear up," Chadha said.

The mass cremation of hundreds of bodies that were found in Kedarnath town was postponed to Friday due to delays in collecting DNA samples from the victims and photographing them. It had been scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday.

S.K. Verma, a doctor leading a team of medical experts in Gauchar, said the collecting of DNA data was being done to help families determine the fate of loved ones who may have perished in the floods.

The state's top elected official, Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna, said that with the rescue efforts tapering off, the local authorities were now concentrating on completing medical formalities before the mass cremations can be held.

"The numbers are so huge that it is taking time to carry out all the formalities properly. Our effort is to complete the cremations without delays. We hope to complete this task by Friday," Bahuguna said.

About 100,000 people from hundreds of villages and towns hit by the floods had been rescued by late Wednesday.

Landslides and floods flattened entire towns, roads were washed away and communication links snapped, cutting off many people and necessitating air rescues.

Hundreds of thousands of Hindus make the Char Dham Yatra pilgrimage to four temple towns in Uttarakhand each year, usually returning home before monsoon rains in July make the mountainous area much more treacherous, but unprecedented heavy rains fell around mid-June this year and caught many by surprise.