India monsoon death toll tops 550

Flash floods and landslides have killed more than 550 people in northern India following annual monsoon rains that struck earlier than expected, a minister told a local TV channel Friday.

"556 bodies have been noticed by the army... either floating or buried in slush," Vijay Bahuguna, chief minister of the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, told CNN-IBN.

"This kind of disaster has never happened in Himalayan history," Bahuguna said.

Helicopters and thousands of soldiers have been deployed to rescue more than 50,000 stranded people, almost one week after floods and landslides were triggered by torrential monsoon rains.

Raging rivers have swept away houses, buildings and even entire villages, and destroyed bridges and narrow roads leading to pilgrimage towns high in the mountains.

"So many are missing across the state. The numbers of the dead could rise sharply in the days to come," Yashpal Arya, the state's relief minister, told AFP earlier.

Bahuguna attacked the India Meterological Department (IMD) for not issuing adequate warning ahead of the heavy rains which struck earlier than expected.

"The IMD warning was not clear enough," he said.

Relatives of those missing faced an agonising wait in the state capital Dehradun, where military helicopters and other aircraft are assisting with rescue efforts.