Cambodia mourns worst tragedy since Khmer Rouge reign

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Nine Vietnamese-Cambodians among 351 dead as festival-goers panic


Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen weeps for victims of the stampede which killed at least 351 people on the Diamond Bridge in Phnom Penh

Grief ran deep as Cambodia, led by a visibly emotional Prime Minister Hun Sen, mourned the deaths of 351 people in a stampede that turned a major national festival into a monumental tragedy.

Hun Sen, who has called the deaths Cambodia's worst disaster since the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, which killed up to a quarter of the nation's population, said at Thursday's mourning ceremony that a memorial stupa would be built at the site to commemorate the tragic deaths.

At least nine Vietnamese-Cambodians were killed in the stampede on a bridge in Phnom Penh that claimed 351 lives, according to the official death toll, revised down from the 456 announced earlier by the Cambodian Ministry of Social Affairs.

The mourning ceremony was attended by thousands of people wearing white shirts and black pants and skirts.

Local media said festival goers to the island celebrating the nation's annual water festival on November 22 panicked after rumor spread that the bridge was about to collapse.

"The deaths happened because the bridge was overcrowded and there was panic that the bridge was collapsing because it is hung by cables and it was swaying," Prum Sokha, who heads a panel investigating the tragedy, told AFP.

"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.

"The people had nowhere to run," said Sokha, secretary of state at the interior ministry.

Zim Sok Oan, 21, said he was on the bridge when the tragedy happened.

"People jostled against each other on the bridge. Many families lost their children. The cries and shouts were overwhelming. People raised their children overhead and attempted to pass them to safe places. Women couldn't stand, fell and were run over," he told Thanh Nien.

Nguyen Thi Con, a Vietnamese-Cambodian in Kan Dal Province near Phnom Penh, said her daughter Nguyen Thi Nho, 22, was among the stampede victims. They found her body at the Calmette Hospital with her head partly crushed and a shoe print on her neck.

"She went there with four friends. Her friends escaped to safety by jumping into the river. She didn't jump because she can't swim."

Coming from a poor family living on a floating house in Tonle Sap River, Nho, mother of a four-year-old, worked for a café in the capital city.

In a nearby floating house, Nguyen Van Thom, another Vietnamese-Cambodian, was mourning the death of his 18- year-old son Nguyen Van Chay.

"I didn't allow him to go to the festival at first. However, he begged his mother by saying that this would be the last time he would go," he said.

The tragedy was even more severe for Nguyen Thi An, another Vietnamese-Cambodian in Phnom Penh, losing two of her seven children in the incident, 21-year-old Nguyen Thi Binh and 13-year-old Nguyen Van Soc. Her niece, six-year-old Ton Pisit, was also killed in the stampede.

The Vietnamese Embassy in Cambodia said that apart from nine dead, another Vietnamese was missing and eight others were injured.

Chau Van Chi, chairman of the Vietnamese Association in Cambodia, said the casualties could be higher and the agency was trying to find out if there were any other Vietnamese-Cambodians unaccounted for, so that they could see if they were among the victims.

As of Wednesday afternoon, many Cambodians from nearby provinces were still rushing to hospitals in Phnom Penh to look for missing relatives.

At the Calmette Hospital, people flocked around the list of the injured that are being treated there in the hope of finding their relatives' names on it.

An Ann, an officer at Preah Ket Mealea Hospital, said the hospital admitted 56 victims of the incident, 14 of whom were dead on arrival. The rest are recovering, he said.

After the tragedy, boat races, concerts and fireworks planned as part of the three-day traditional festival (November 20-22) were canceled. The festival celebrates the reversal of the flow between the Tonle Sap Lake and the Mekong River.

THE WORLD'S WORST STAMPEDES

July 2010 - A stampede kills 19 people and injures 342 at the Love Parade techno music festival in Duisburg, Germany.

February 2010 - 26 people are crushed to death and 40 wounded in a stampede near a mosque in Mali's desert city of Timbuktu during the Muslim festival of Maouloud.

March 2009 - In Ivory Coast, at least 19 people are killed during a stampede at Abidjan's Felix Houphouet-Boigny stadium before a World Cup qualifier against Malawi.

September 2008 - In India, 147 people are killed and 55 injured in a stampede at the Chamunda temple, near the historic western town of Jodhpur.

August 2008 - Rumors of a landslide trigger a stampede by pilgrims in India at the Naina Devi temple in Himachal Pradesh state. At least 145 people die and more than 100 are injured.

September 2006 - At least 51 people are killed in a Yemeni stadium where President Ali Abdullah Saleh is holding a pre-election rally in the southern province of Ibb.

February 2006 - 71 people are killed at a stadium in Manila as they scramble to get into a popular Philippine television game show.

January 2006 - 362 Muslim pilgrims are crushed to death at the eastern entrance of the Jamarat Bridge when pilgrims jostle to perform the stoning ritual between noon and sunset.

August 2005 - At least 1,005 people die in Iraq when Shi'ites stampede off a bridge over the Tigris river in Baghdad, panicked by rumors of a suicide bomber in the crowd.

January 2005 - At least 265 Hindu pilgrims, including several women and children, are killed near a remote temple in India's Maharashtra state.

February 2004 - A stampede kills 251 Muslim pilgrims in Saudi Arabia near Jamarat Bridge during the ritual stoning of the devil at the annual Haj pilgrimage.

May 2001 - In Ghana, 126 people are killed in a stampede at Accra's main soccer stadium when police fire teargas at rioting fans in one of Africa's worst soccer disasters.

April 1998 - 119 nineteen Muslim pilgrims are crushed to death at the Haj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia.

May 1994 - Also in Saudi Arabia, a stampede near Jamarat Bridge kills 270 in the area where pilgrims hurl stones at piles of rocks symbolizing the devil.

July 1990 - Inside al-Muaissem tunnel near Mecca in Saudi Arabia, 1,426 pilgrims are crushed to death. The accident occurs on Eid al-Adha (The Feast of Sacrifice), Islam's most important feast at the end of the annual Haj pilgrimage. (REUTERS)

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