PHNOM PENH, Nov 24, 2010 (AFP) - Grieving families in Cambodia were due to pay their last respects Wednesday to relatives among the nearly 380 victims killed in a massive stampede at a water festival in the capital.
The annual three-day celebration ended in tragedy on Monday, with survivors recalling scenes of fear and panic as crowds surged on an overcrowded bridge, crushing and trampling people underfoot.
|A policeman walks among clothes, shoes and personal belongings left on the Diamond Gate Bridge by the victims of the stampede in Phnom Penh on November 23, 2010. AFP|
Relatives were left with a harrowing search through hospitals and makeshift morgues in the capital Phnom Penh, desperate for news of the missing.
Many were faced with the heartbreak of identifying the bodies of their loved ones.
Hundreds of families are set to hold funerals for the victims in the coming days amid a national outpouring of grief.
Prime Minister Hun Sen described the disaster as Cambodia's worst tragedy since the Khmer Rouge's 1975-1979 reign of terror, which left up to a quarter of the population dead. He declared a national day of mourning on Thursday.
At least 378 people were killed in the stampede and some 750 were injured, government spokesman Phay Siphan told AFP, adding that the number could rise further.
Exuberant festival-goers had been crossing the bridge to reach an island hosting concerts, food stalls and ice sculptures before the crowd turned to a desperate crush of human bodies.
The dead, laid out in rows under a white tent erected in the city's Calmette Hospital car park, were photographed and numbered by policemen, their uncovered faces showing that many had sustained bloody bruises during the stampede.
One woman said she recognised her 16-year-old niece among the dead.
"I heard she was killed last night, so I came here and I saw her body," Som Khov, 51, told AFP.
After Hun Sen promised that the bodies of out-of-town visitors would be sent home, 13 military trucks began taking away corpses.
By late Tuesday most of the dead had been removed from the hospital's makeshift morgue, delivered back to their relatives.
It was not immediately clear what had triggered the disaster, but another government spokesman said a rumour had spread among revellers celebrating one of Cambodia's biggest festivals that the bridge was unstable.
Khieu Kanharith said many of the deaths were caused by suffocation and internal injuries, adding that about two-thirds of those killed were women.
One survivor at Calmette Hospital who suffered serious back injuries recalled the anguish of being unable to help others around him as the surging crowd became a suffocating crush.
"I felt selfish when it happened, but I could not help myself. There was a child trapped under me and I wanted to pull him up but I couldn't," he said, asking not to be named.
The stampede marked a tragic end to the boat races, concerts and fireworks that are traditionally part of the annual festival to celebrate the reversal of the flow between the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers.
The event -- which saw hundreds of brightly coloured boats take part in races on the Tonle Sap -- is popular with tourists but there was no confirmation that any foreigners were among the victims.