Image: Prime Minister Hun Sen
Reuters
Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen pays respects to stampede victims during a ceremony on Thursday in Phnom Penh.
msnbc.com news services
updated 11/25/2010 5:48:05 AM ET 2010-11-25T10:48:05

Cambodia began a day of mourning Thursday with the prime minister weeping at the spot where hundreds died during a wild riverside stampede.

Prime Minister Hun Sen cried as he lit candles and incense at a narrow bridge where thousands of festival-goers panicked, trampling hundreds underfoot on Monday night. He was joined by the Bassac River in the capital Phnom Penh by his wife Bun Rany and Cabinet members. Flags throughout the country were flying at half-staff and a Buddhist ceremony was scheduled for later in the day.

There has been confusion over the death toll from the tragedy. The latest official casualty tally was 347 dead and 395 injured, down from earlier official figures.

A government investigation showed that as the suspension bridge swayed under the weight of thousands of revelers, some began to shout that the structure was going to collapse. Others pushed, heaved and even jumped off the span as a panic took hold that resulted in the mass deaths.

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"People became panicked when they saw other people fall down, and they started running when they heard cries that the bridge was going to collapse," city police chief Touch Naroth told AP Television News on Wednesday.

The official probe into the accident continues with a final report expected next week, said Om Yentieng, a member of the investigating committee. He said earlier casualty figures were not correct due to overlapping of counts by various institutions.

Nightclubs, beer gardens closed
Hun Sen has described the stampede as the biggest tragedy since the communist Khmer Rouge's reign of terror, which killed an estimated 1.7 million people in the late 1970s.

During Thursday's official day of mourning, the Tourism Ministry has asked all entertainment venues, including karaoke parlors, nightclubs, beer gardens and discotheques, to close for the day.

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The stampede happened during celebrations of a three-day holiday marking the end of the monsoon season, when as many as 2 million people are believed to have come to the capital. As festivities wrapped up Monday night, tens of thousands flocked to a free concert on an island in the Bassac River.

An estimated 7,000 to 8,000 people were streaming over a bridge that connects the island to the mainland when it began to sway, according to Banyon TV, which serves as a mouthpiece for the government and was citing the investigation committee.

Om Yentieng said there were no signs on the dead bodies that any had been electocuted as some earlier reports suggested.

Street cleaners late Wednesday removed the debris that littered the yellow-and-gray bridge after the disaster: rubber sandals and other footwear, plastic bracelets, water bottles, condom wrappers and sugar cane pieces, a local snack.

Video: Deadly crowd panic prompted by fainting in Cambodia (on this page)

The disaster, however, is unlikely to spiral into political damage for Hun Sen, a strongman whose blend of populism and cronyism has kept him in office for a quarter of a century.

"There won't be any fallout for Hun Sen and his government. It won't go away any time soon, but it can be explained away as a tragedy," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun a professor of regional strategic and political studies at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

Experts say the government's virtual monopoly on power and its connections will mean, while some heads might roll, senior city and police officials, or those involved in the construction of bridge are not likely to face prosecution.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Deadly crowd panic prompted by fainting in Cambodia

  1. Transcript of: Deadly crowd panic prompted by fainting in Cambodia

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: And there is a major travel -- tragedy unfolding overseas tonight in Cambodia . What started as a celebration attracting a huge crowd -- in fact, millions of people -- has ended in a death toll in the hundreds after panic triggered a human stampede. Our own Ian Williams is in Bangkok in neighboring Thailand tonight. Ian , good evening.

    IAN WILLIAMS reporting: Good evening, Brian . More than 330 people died in the stampede, which came at the end of huge celebration to mark the end of the rainy season. It should have been the joyous end to one of Cambodia 's biggest festivals. Instead this, the shocking aftermath of a stampede that's killed hundreds of people. Early reports say the majority are women. Hospitals in the Cambodian capital are overwhelmed. Millions of people had descended on the city for the annual three-day water festival celebrating the end of the rainy season. Eyewitnesses say there was panic as a vast crowd pressed across a small bridge back into Phnom Penh from a nearby island where they'd been attending a concert.

    Mr. ROBERT CARMICHAEL: A lot of people in Cambodia can't swim, so there's no doubt some people drowned in the river having got off the crush on the bridge.

    I. WILLIAMS: The prime minister is calling it the biggest tragedy since the murderous Khmer Rouge regime ruled the country. It's dawn now in Phnom Penh and the search for bodies is continuing. Officials still trying to figure out exactly what triggered that tragic stampede. Brian :

    B. WILLIAMS: Ian Williams reporting from the region tonight. Ian , thanks for that.

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