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Terrified trekkers recount flood 'hell' in Indian Himalayas

The flooded Indus river passes through Leh. Hundreds of people were still missing in the Indian Himalayas on Tuesday four days after flash floods hit the remote region of Ladakh, killing at least 165. Photo courtesy AFP.Indian army airlifts survivors of Himalayan floods
Srinagar, India (AFP) Aug 12, 2010 - Indian army helicopters airlifted more stranded tourists to safety Thursday in the wake of flash floods that killed 185 people in the high-altitude Himalayan adventure playground of Ladakh. One week after the floods devastated the main Ladakh city of Leh and surrounding areas, around 400 people are still missing, including members of foreign trekking tours. August is peak trekking season in Buddhist-dominated Ladakh and tourism officials said as many as 2,000 foreigners were in the region when the disaster struck on the night of August 5. "The Indian army is pushing on with its mission of finding the missing people," army spokesman J.S. Brar told AFP in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian Kashmir.

"We are also evacuating foreign tourists stranded at various places. Our priority is those who are seriously ill or dehydrated," Brar said. The Indian army has a large presence in Ladakh, which shares a sensitive and in many places disputed border with China, as well as with arch-rival Pakistan. The floods, which were triggered by a sudden and unusually intense cloudburst, swiftly developed into fast-moving, powerful mudslides that destroyed buildings, downed power lines and washed away large sections of road. Among the confirmed dead were three French nationals, a Spaniard and an Italian. Other foreigners who died included 16 Nepali labourers and two Tibetan refugees.

The Kashmir state government said it was still trying to establish the exact number and location of tourists via embassies and travel agencies. In the devastated village of Choglamsar, on the outskirts of Leh, Indian soldiers Thursday distributed tents, mattresses and sleeping bags to those whose homes had been destroyed. Brar said a 6.5-tonne generator had been airlifted to Leh to power up communication links which have been down for a week, hampering rescue and relief work. Among those feared dead are 26 Indian soldiers stationed at a small army post on the de facto border with Pakistan. Foreign trekkers who managed to get a flight to New Delhi, arrived in the Indian capital Thursday looking exhausted and traumatised by their experiences.

"There were mudslides and rocks tumbling down the mountains," said David Bressac, a mountaineering guide with a Franco-Indian tour agency. "It was horrific. The mudslides were moving at an incredible speed," said Bressac, his eyes red from lack of sleep and a large rucksack flung over his shoulder. "It lasted one or two hours. And after that we were stuck for five days. It was hell," he added. Two friends from Paris, Philippe Vassal, 29, and Sebastien Poumeyrol, 30, recounted a narrow escape after the flash floods tore through their campsite. "Out tent which, miraculously, we had just got out of, was swept away in the first mudslide," said Vassal. "We spent the night sheltered behind a small stone wall and then the next two nights sleeping in a barn," he added.
by Staff Writers
New Delhi (AFP) Aug 12, 2010
Traumatised foreign trekkers caught in flash floods that killed 185 people in the Indian Himalayas recounted Thursday a week of "hell" battling rockfalls, raging mudslides and constant fear.

Exhausted and still clearly in shock, a group of mainly French tourists flew into New Delhi from Ladakh region, where a sudden, intense cloudburst one week ago turned their mountain trekking holiday into a battle for survival.

"There were mudslides and rocks tumbling down the mountains," said David Bressac, a mountaineering guide with a Franco-Indian tour agency.

"It was horrific. The mudslides were moving at an incredible speed," said Bressac, his eyes red from lack of sleep and a large rucksack flung over his shoulder.

On August 5, Bressac, 22, had been leading a group of nine people on a hike from the main Ladakh city of Leh through the surrounding Markah Valley, one of the region's most popular high-altitude treks for foreign adventure tourists.

"One of the group had altitude sickness and he and I had turned around to head back to Leh when the rains hit," he told AFP.

Heavy rainfall is rare in Ladakh and last week's downpour was so strong that it triggered cascades of water and rock down the sides of the mountains and into the valleys, where the flow grew more intense -- and more deadly.

"We had mud flowing up to our hips," Bressac said. "And we needed each other's help just to keep upright and make our way out of there.

"It lasted one or two hours. And after that we were stuck for five days. It was hell," he said.

The floods washed away large sections of road -- including major highways -- in the area, leaving many tour groups stranded and awaiting rescue by the Indian army, which has a strong presence near Ladakh's border with China.

According to Indian officials, 185 people were killed in Leh and surrounding areas, and hundreds remain missing a week later.

Among the dead were three French nationals, a Spaniard and an Italian, officials told AFP.

Bressac said numerous stranded trekking groups got together for added safety and some of them had terrifying stories of members who had been killed or gone missing, like one French 18-year-old carried away by a river of mud.

"In the end, there were about 100 of us taking shelter in a village. We had no food, no water and no means of outside communication, and there was a constant sense of panic," he said.

"Eventually we got hold of a satellite phone and we managed to get out a message on August 8 that we were stuck. The helicopters came early the next morning. It was an enormous relief."

Two friends from Paris, Philippe Vassal, 29, and Sebastien Poumeyrol, 30, recounted a narrow escape after the flash floods tore through their campsite.

"Out tent, which miraculously we had just got out of, was swept away in the first mudslide," said Vassal.

"We spent the night sheltered behind a small stone wall and then the next two nights sleeping in a barn," he said.

They eventually decided to try and walk back to Leh, which proved a nerve-wracking experience.

"We crossed over one peak and there were landslides everywhere. Eventually we were picked up by an army truck that brought us back," said Poumeyrol, a student of Tibetan.

The two friends said a number of the local guides, who are often quite young, had appeared completely overcome by the scale of the disaster.

"They just aren't used to that kind of rainfall in the mountains. Nothing like that had happened for 50 years," said Poumeyrol.

Armentia Araceli, a Spanish retiree from Madrid, found herself stuck in Leh after her trek was cancelled in the wake of the floods. She spent the week with other volunteers clearing mud from schools and other buildings and helping the search for victims.

On Wednesday evening, local residents and a large number of tourists held a candlelight march through the devastated streets of Leh in memory of those who died.




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Rains threaten China mudslide disaster zone
Zhouqu, China (AFP) Aug 11, 2010
Rescuers racing against a potential new deluge on Wednesday hurried to drain an unstable lake formed by China's worst mudslides in decades, as the death toll surged past 1,100. More than 10,000 soldiers and rescuers combed through the mountains of mud that buried a remote area of the northwest province of Gansu at the weekend, killing 1,117 people by the latest count and leaving more than 60 ... read more

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