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PM overcome by grief

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CAMBODIANS across the country observed a day of mourning yesterday for the victims of Monday’s Diamond Island stampede, as questions remained about the ultimate cause of and responsibility for the disaster.

Government officials said Wednesday that the death toll had reached 456, though that number was revised downward yesterday to 347. Senior Minister Om Yentieng, the deputy chairman of the government commission investigating the incident, said yesterday that the death toll provided a day earlier by the investigatory sub-commission had double-counted victims who were brought to local hospitals before being returned to their home provinces.

Government officials gathered yesterday morning at the site of the tragedy, where Prime Minister Hun Sen shed tears as he knelt to pay respect to the souls of the deceased.

“The loss of such a huge number of lives in just a fraction of time and at a single location is unprecedented in years of history of our celebration of national and international festivities,” the government said in an official statement issued at the mourning ceremony. “This tragic, untimely and unexpected loss of many lives will remain a bitter and painful memory for Cambodia.”

Phnom Penh governor Kep Chuktema, whose resignation opposition leaders have called for in the wake of Monday’s incident, told reporters at the mourning ceremony yesterday that the tragedy was “a huge lesson for me and other authorities in preparing for such large events in the future”.

“This is an incident that no one wanted to happen – it happened unpredictably,” he said.

Om Yentieng said the full investigation of the incident had not yet concluded, but that preliminary findings indicated that the crush had ensued after the estimated 10,000 people on the 50 by 5 metre walkway leading to Diamond Island, or Koh Pich, panicked due to the swaying of the bridge. The investigation has been based “on the examination of corpses, injured people, witness statements and direct inspection of the site”, Om Yentieng said, adding that the probe is expected to be concluded next week.

Survivors have claimed that those trapped on the bridge received electric shocks from wiring on the bridge, but Om Yentieng said this had yet to be substantiated.

“The corpses and injured people did not show any sign of electrocution,” Om Yentieng said. “The electric wires on the bridge were not broken and the lamps were still working.”

The government statement said all “relevant authorities have exhausted all their available resources to control the situation”.

“Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padei Techo Hun Sen at the helm of the Royal Government of Cambodia has, with great compassion and shrewdness, ordered every competent authority to make all out efforts to manage the situation and save lives,” the statement read, using the premier’s full honourific.

Pung Khiav Se, director general of Canadia Bank and head of the firm developing the Diamond Island complex, told staff members on the island yesterday afternoon that the firm would learn from Monday’s tragedy, though he denied responsibility for it. Government officials including Information Minister Khieu Kanharith have said the firm was responsible for security on the island and the bridges that service it, though Diamond Island officials have said the government is responsible.

“Our Koh Pich is famous all over the world – not famous in a positive way, but famous in a negative way, even though it was not our mistake,” Pung Khiav Se said. On the suggestion of Kep Chuktema, he added, future traffic on the bridge will be one-way.

“If it had only been one way from the beginning, there would be no such incident,” Pung Khiav Se said. “We could not predict that there would be so many people like that.”

Peter Li, the country director of emergency response NGO Side by Side International, who was on the scene 45 minutes after Monday’s incident, said yesterday’s revised body count was likely more accurate than Wednesday’s reported total of 456, as all bodies were taken immediately to the major hospitals in Phnom Penh. As for how the incident came about in the first place, Li said the mass panic explanation allowed for a diffusion of responsibility that would ensure scrutiny would not fall on any particular official.

“The simple fact is that whoever is in charge screwed up in crowd control,” Li said.

Food and incense were arranged on roadsides throughout the capital in tribute to those who passed away on Monday. Beer gardens, nightclubs and other places of entertainment were ordered to close yesterday by the Ministry of Tourism.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SAM RITH, KIM YUTHANA AND JAMES O’TOOLE

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