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PM weeps as Cambodia mourns stampede dead

Image: Prime Minister Hun Sen
Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen pays respects to stampede victims during a ceremony on Thursday in Phnom Penh.Reuters
/ Source: news services

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.

"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.

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.

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.