NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Floods that have killed 450 people in India and Pakistan began to recede on Wednesday giving rescue teams a chance to evacuate thousands of villagers stranded by the heaviest rainfall in 50 years in the heavily militarized and disputed region of Kashmir.
On the Indian side of the divided region, floods and landslides have cut off more than 1 million people from basic services, triggering a massive military rescue operation that has so far evacuated 80,000 from villages and city rooftops.
Tempers rose on Wednesday with some angry that relief efforts were only reaching them six days after the floods began. Others complained about living conditions in temporary camps.
Villagers heckled some soldiers and beat a rescue official who was airlifted for emergency treatment.
The flooding is the first major humanitarian emergency under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and also comes at a difficult time for Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has faced weeks of street protests aimed at forcing him out.
“There are some villages where everything has been swept away. People are extremely angry, frustrated and exhausted,” Indian police official R.K. Khan said.
Many phone lines in the region have been down since the weekend. A police official estimated that thousands were yet to be evacuated.
State Chief Minister Omar Abdullah vowed to restore emergency services.
“I know people have lost everything. We promise to rehabilitate them. No relief and rehab camps can be perfect. We are doing all we can,” Abdullah told reporters.
He said the priority was to distribute clean drinking water, medicines, food for infants and prevent the spread of water-borne diseases.
The prime ministers of India and Pakistan offered each other help at the weekend to deal with the disaster, which temporarily diverted attention from fighting along the border.
But violence flared up again on the Line of Control on Wednesday, with about two dozen soldiers fighting militants even as flood rescue operations were under way elsewhere.
“Three militants were shot dead by the Indian troops in Kashmir after a 10-hour-long gun battle,” Defence Ministry spokesman Sitanshu Kar said.
Kashmir has been at the heart of decades of rivalry since a war after independence from Britain in 1947. New Delhi maintains a massive military presence in its northernmost territory.
In Pakistan, prominent Islamist Hafiz Saeed accused India of “water terrorism” - causing flooding across the border by discharging dam water downstream.
“India has used water to attack Pakistan, We are in state of War,” Saeed said on Twitter. India accuses Saeed of masterminding the 2008 Mumbai attacks that left 166 people dead.
The Indian army has evacuated 80,000 people from their homes, mosques and government buildings. The death toll from the flooding in Jammu and Kashmir, the country’s northernmost state, reached 220 by Wednesday.
In Pakistan, at least 231 people were reported to have been killed by the floods across the country, including Pakistan’s side of Kashmir.
South Asia experiences monsoon rains from June to September, which are vital for its agriculture. But the rains frequently turn to floods, devastating crops, destroying homes and prompting outbreaks of diseases and diarrhea.
Environmentalists in New Delhi said the death toll and devastation in Kashmir was alarming and the government should recognize that floods were getting worse because of climate change.
“The Kashmir floods are a grim reminder that climate change is now hitting India harder,” said Chandra Bhusan, head of climate change team at the Centre for Science and Environment.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said this year’s monsoon rains had killed more than 1,000 people in India alone.
Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Alison Williams