Twenty bravehearts killed in Tuesday's helicopter crash in Uttarakhand were today given a guard of honour, even as operations commenced to clear the layers of debris under which many bodies were feared buried, amid reports of 3,000 people missing.
The 20 men -- five from IAF, nine from NDRF and six from ITBP -- were accorded the honour in presence of Union Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde, Uttarakhand Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna and Army Chief Gen Bikram Singh at a ceremony in Dehradun.
"The guard of honour to the 20 bravehearts is a little step from our side to remember their supreme sacrifice for the service of the nation. We offer our prayer to all those who lost their lives," Shinde said.
With a large number of people still missing, and their bodies feared trapped under layers of debris and slush in the flood-hit state, the focus now will be on finding them, the Home Minister told reporters.
He said priority would be given to evacuate the sick, old and disabled people, along with women, a large number of whom are stranded in the Badrinath area. He also gave an assurance that IAF choppers will remain in the state for another 15 days to rescue and provide succour.
The Home Minister, who also reviewed rescue and relief operations, said more helicopters will be deployed to rescue all those who have not been evacuated yet.
Meanwhile, a Rs 195 crore-package was announced by the government today for reconstruction of the 'Char Dham' pilgrimage circuit, which was badly affected by the floods.
Tourism Minister K Chiranjeevi said the fund will be spent for renovation and reconstruction of the sacred pilgrimage sites of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri, and its surrounding areas and the roads connecting it.
Chiranjeevi told reporters in Dehradun that the Uttarakhand government will utilise the fund according to its requirements.
Sending a word of assurance, Army Chief Gen Bikram Singh said the armed forces will continue their operations till all the people are rescued from various locations in flood-hit Uttarakhand.
Gen Singh, who is on a day-long visit to affected areas, said he had asked his commanders to launch relief operations in "very, very difficult conditions" in a proactive manner, without waiting for any requisition from authorities.
"We are getting information that there may still be some survivors in certain areas. Like I am told, yesterday we had an input that in north of Badrinath there were some people, 40 of them. We had launched sorties yesterday but couldn't detect them.
"We will be doing it again, if the weather permits. But endeavour is to locate all our citizens, wherever they are, and get them out," he told reporters in Gauchar.
Mass cremation of bodies in Kedarnath, the worst-affected in flood fury, is also on, as authorities are racing against time to minimise risks of epidemic outbreak.
The process of performing of last rites of those killed in Kedarnath Valley continued, with about 34 bodies being consigned to flames till now, after completion of formalities like their identification and DNA sampling.
With the weather improving, 17 helicopters took off to rescue an estimated 1,237 people now stuck at different places in the hill state, with the Harshil sector totally cleared of pilgrims. About 3,000 people are still reported missing, officials said.
The focus now is on Badrinath Dham area, where majority of the pilgrims are now stranded, they said.
All major roads except the Joshimath-Badrinath, Rudraprayag-Gaurikund and Uttarkashi-Gangotri routes have been reopened, raising hopes of speedy evacuation, they said.
Till now, 1,04,687 persons have been evacuated from different places by road and air, officials said.
Officials said an estimated 3,000 people were missing, and efforts have been intensified to trace their whereabouts.
Details and photographs of those missing can be uploaded on the state government website to help authorities in tracking them.