India began evacuating thousands of villagers along two river valleys in the Himalayas on Thursday as officials and relief agencies said the death toll in a series of landslides could top 300.
Relatives in the army garrison town of Bareilly waited anxiously for news of 60 Hindu pilgrims who were among more than 200 people missing and feared dead in a huge landslide that hit the makeshift camp of Malapa early on Tuesday.The death toll in a landslip that hit another village rose to 26. Smaller landslides were reported elsewhere.
Incessant monsoon rains, heavy fog and knee-deep mud made access to the area almost impossible.
Rescue workers and pilots of army helicopters waiting to go to the Malapa disaster site in Pithoragarh district were thwarted by blocked roads, an overcast sky and poor communications.
Manoj Mathur, secretary-general of the Indian Red Cross Society, said medical workers and rescue volunteers feared unidentified travellers and villagers could raise the toll.
"They fear that the death toll may cross even 300," he told Reuters in New Delhi.
N.S. Negi, additional district magistrate of Pithoragarh, said the bodies of 21 unidentified people had been recovered by a team of army and Indo-Tibetan border police personnel, and a further force of 100 rescuers was being rushed to the site.
Three helicopters reached Pithoragarh late in the day and plans were set for them to head at sunrise for Malapa - where the pilgrims had been camping on their way to the holy Mansarovar Lake in Tibet - and fly bodies back to Bareilly.
The pilgrimage, an annual event coordinated by India's foreign ministry, was suspended after the landslide.
Press Trust of India said the government was considering closing down the pilgrimage during the annual monsoons and exploring an alternate and safer route for devotees.
Mansarovar lake and the flanking Mount Kailash are revered by Hindus as the abode of their god Shiva. Pilgrims have to walk for several days to reach the spot across the China border.
Top state civil servant Naresh Dayal said in the state capital of Lucknow that officials had on Wednesday night ordered villagers out of low-lying areas in the valleys of the Alaknanda and Mandakini rivers and downstream Ganges.
"We have alerted the army and asked people to evacuate from all low-lying areas from Mansuna downstream," Dayal said.
A cloudburst and eight days of torrential rain have loosened rocks in the region, which has suffered extensive deforestation, probably triggering the landslides, officials said.