Cambodia festival stampede leaves almost 350 dead

PHNOM PENH (AFP) – Cambodia began the grim task Tuesday of identifying almost 350 people crushed to death in a bridge stampede when revellers panicked at a huge water festival in Phnom Penh.

Hundreds more people were injured in the disaster, Cambodia's deadliest in decades, which took place late Monday on an overcrowded narrow bridge as millions celebrated the end of the annual three-day event.

Cambodian military police carry a body near a bridge in Phnom Penh. AFP

Prime Minister Hun Sen described it as Cambodia's darkest hour since the Khmer Rouge, whose 1975-1979 rule left up to a quarter of the population dead.

"This is the biggest tragedy since the Pol Pot regime," Hun Sen said in a live television broadcast, referring to the Khmer Rouge's late leader.

He said Cambodia would hold a national day of mourning on Thursday.

"I would like to share my condolences with my compatriots and the family members of the victims," he said.

Sunglasses and flip-flops were left scattered on the ground among lifeless bodies at the scene of the tragedy.

Witnesses reported people pushing and shoving in the crowd.

"We were crossing the bridge to Diamond Island when people started pushing from the other side. There was lots of screaming and panic," 23-year-old Kruon Hay told AFP at the scene.

"People started running and were falling over each other. I fell too. I only survived because other people pulled me up. Many people jumped in the water," he said.

The stampede killed 347 and left another 410 injured, with many of the deaths caused by suffocation and internal injuries, government spokesman Khieu Kanharith told AFP, adding about two thirds of the dead were women.

It was not immediately clear what had triggered the disaster, but Kanharith said a rumour had spread among the revellers that the bridge was unstable.

"So panic started. It was too crowded and they had nowhere to run," he said. "Now we need to identify the bodies."

Police were seen carrying away some of the victims while others were laid in a row on the ground. Many of the dead appeared to be young Cambodians.

"This is the biggest tragedy we have ever seen," said Sok Sambath, governor of the capital's Daun Penh district.

Dozens of people gathered outside the city's Calmette hospital, where at least 105 people were confirmed dead, according to a police officer.

More bodies were taken to seven other hospitals across the capital, health officials said.

The government plans to donate five million riel (1,250 US dollars) each to the families of the dead victims, and one million riel (250 dollars) to each of the injured, Kanharith said.

The premier said the government would arrange for the bodies of out-of-town visitors to be sent home.

Many festivalgoers were left in tears after the tragic end to the three days of boat races, concerts and fireworks.

The annual festival, one of Cambodia's largest and most exuberant, marks the reversal of the flow between the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers.

It is also seen as a way of giving thanks to the river for providing the country with fertile land and abundant fish.

The event -- which saw hundreds of brightly coloured boats take part in races on the Tonle Sap river -- is popular with tourists but there were no immediate reports that foreigners were among the victims.

The last time the festival was marred by tragedy was in 2007 when five Singaporeans were killed after their dragon boat, carrying 22 men, capsized at the end of their race.

Accidents are common during the races, which involve long, thin boats crewed by as many as 70 rowers, which compete against each other in the sometimes choppy waters in front of Phnom Penh's royal palace.

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