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16 crushed to death as police 'panic'

16 crushed to death as police 'panic'

The death of 16 people on King Sihanouk's birthday last Sunday has raised further

questions about the ability of Cambodia's police force to face the problems of a

modern society.

Thousands of visitors attempted to leave the palace the moment the night's firework

display began but found themselves trapped when police refused to let them leave.

One palace guard said the catastrophe could have been avoided if police had listened

to their advice, and he accused them of panicking.

"It was jammed everywhere. People were pushing and screaming," said the

guard. "Breathing was almost impossible."

Police, however, put the blame on "gangsters" who they said caused panic

in order to pick-pocket the crowd.

As the celebrations continued Monday, police ensured the crowds were out of the palace

by 6pm, well before that evening's fireworks display began.

Sunday's fireworks began at 7pm prompting thousands of palace visitors to surge towards

the exit on the east side, facing the Tonle Sap River, from where the fireworks were

launched.

But they were met by police who told them to leave by a gate on the north side.

Police on the north side also refused to let anyone out and told the crowd to return

to the east gate.

People were crushed and trapped for nearly an hour before police realized something

was seriously wrong.

Throughout the ordeal, the east gate remained open but witnesses say police ignored

the pleas from the dying and injured, barring the exit instead.

Outside, as thousands of revelers celebrated King Sihanouk's 71st birthday, the noise

of fireworks masked the events unfolding behind them.

Inside, Chou Yem, 50, was struggling to save her niece from the pushing crowd. She

joined hands with her sister to give some protection to the young girl.

"The gate was packed with the crowd, it was impossible to breathe. Nobody could

see the ground and we had to keep our faces up," she said.

"I could not see who was falling because I was so worried about my niece. I

was scared to death and my niece kept screaming and screaming."

People were trampled by others trying to get through the gate. Some were crushed

to death, some suffocated.

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