Cambodia holds day of mourning for stampede victims

The BBC's Guy Delauney said Cambodia's leader was visibly moved at the ceremony

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Cambodia has been holding a day of mourning for hundreds of people killed in a festival stampede.

Prime Minister Hun Sen joined officials and grieving relatives for a religious ceremony at the footbridge where the tragedy happened.

Cambodia's social affairs ministry now says some 350 people died in the crush, 100 fewer than it said on Wednesday.

A preliminary investigation has found that the swaying of the bridge near the capital, Phnom Penh, triggered a panic.

The prime minister lit incense and laid a wreath near the bridge now cleared of shoes, clothing and plastic bottles that had been a grim reminder of the stampede.

His wife Bun Rany cried as a military band played. Other government officials, including Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, also paid their respects.

Flags were flying at half mast at government buildings across the capital. Most schools were closed and dozens of uniformed school children carrying flowers attended the early morning ceremony.

Witnesses said that as the disaster unfolded on Monday some people were crushed on the bridge, while others fell into the river and drowned.

Crowds of revellers had been crossing the bridge to reach an island where an annual water festival was being held.

A committee set up to investigate the disaster found that many of the people on the suspension bridge were from the countryside and were unaware that such structures often swayed, local media reported.

Cremations

"We were concerned about the possibilities of boats capsizing and pick-pocketing," government spokesman Khieu Kanharith told the AFP news agency. "We did well, but we did not think about this kind of incident."

Between 7,000 and 8,000 are thought to have been on the bridge at the time.

Recent stampedes

  • Jan 2005 - Up to 300 Hindu pilgrims die on way to temple in India's Maharashtra state
  • Aug 2005 - More than 1,000 Shia pilgrims die in Baghdad in panic over possible suicide bombing
  • Jan 2006 - At least 364 pilgrims die in annual Hajj pilgrimage in Mina, Saudi Arabia
  • Sep 2008 - More than 220 die at Hindu temple in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India

"Some started screaming that the bridge was collapsing, that people were getting electric shocks and that the iron cables were snapping, so the people pushed each other and fell down and the stampede happened," said Prum Sokha, heading the panel of inquiry.

The first funerals and cremations took place across the country on Wednesday.

Hun Sen earlier said a memorial would be built "to commemorate the souls of the people who lost their lives in the incident... and to remember the serious tragedy for the nation and the Cambodian people".

But many relatives say they want answers.

"I feel very sad and angry about what happened," said Phea Channara at a funeral service for his 24-year-old sister near Phnom Penh.

"I wonder if the police really did their job. Why did they allow it to happen?"

Hun Sen has described the stampede as the country's biggest tragedy since the Khmer Rouge era in the 1970s, which left an estimated 1.7 million people dead.

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