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Bridge-collapse rescuers battle darkness, current, isolation

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  • NEW: Rescue effort continues in Nepal as darkness falls
  • NEW: Attendance at Hindu festival swollen because of end of conflict
  • Suspended footbridge carrying religious pilgrims falls into river
  • 700 to 1,000 were on bridge; about 200 remain missing
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KATHMANDU, Nepal (CNN) -- Rescuers were searching through the night Tuesday for hundreds of people who fell into a river after a footbridge collapsed during a religious festival in Nepal.


The bridge collapsed under the weight of hundreds of people, police said.

"The rescuers have not given up yet. They're still there, and they're still looking for bodies," journalist Manesh Shrestha told CNN from Nepal's capital, Kathmandu.

The suspension bridge in remote Surkhet collapsed with as many as 1,000 Hindu pilgrims on it, police said.

While many swam to safety, about 200 people who were on the bridge were missing, police said. Only 15 bodies had been recovered so far.

Rescuers took 20 women and 12 men to a hospital, police added.

While initial reports suggested the river's currents were swift, photographs of the scene sent to CNN showed a relatively slow-flowing river.

However, Shrestha said the current is more swift below that point.

The pictures also showed the bridge was just a few yards above the water, contrary to earlier reports that it spanned a gorge with the river as far as 100 feet below. Video Watch what rescuers are up against »

"The bridge collapsed because there were hundreds of people on it," said Nepalese police officer Nibandha Budha. "They had gone to the river for a three-day Hindu religious festival on the occasion of full moon."

The 120-yard-long bridge spanned the Bheri River in the Surkhet district, southwest of Kathmandu. The river is fed by snow from the Himalayas. See a map of the region »

Seven hundred to 1,000 people were on the bridge when it gave way, Budha said.

Many people were just standing on the bridge rather than crossing it, adding to the stress on the structure, Shrestha said. He added that most of the people on the bridge were women and children, and that women in Nepal are not encouraged to learn how to swim.

The bridge linked two temples involved in the festival, which was in its final day, he said.

Nepalese soldiers, police officers and civilians were involved in the rescue effort, which was hampered by darkness and the remoteness of the location.

Nepal has been roiled by political upheaval since the early 1990s.

A Maoist insurgency that began in 1996 ended with a cease-fire in November 2006. The crown prince massacred 10 members of the royal family and killed himself in 2001.


King Gyanendra fired the prime minister and cabinet in 2002. A government was established in 2004 but dissolved in 2005. The king retained absolute power until mass demonstrations led to a new parliament in April 2006. A new constitution that includes the Maoists took effect in January 2007.

Shrestha said this year's festival was the first since the conflict with the Maoists ended, and marked the first time in 10 years that festival-goers could move about freely, so attendance was larger than usual. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Journalist Manesh Shrestha in Kathmandu and CNN's Alan Duke contributed to this report.

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