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Bridge stampede at Cambodia festival kills at least 349

A massive stampede at a festival in the Cambodian capital killed at least 349 people Monday and injured hundreds more in what the prime minister called the country’s worst tragedy since the 1970s reign of the Khmer Rouge.

The disaster occurred when a crowd attending a concert on an artificial island to celebrate the end of the rainy season returned to the mainland across a bridge roughly 30 yards wide and 300 yards long.

As the human crush intensified, some people suffocated where they stood; others tried to jump over the side. But many couldn’t swim and reportedly drowned, while others fell onto the concrete below and were killed or badly injured.

News footage showed dozens of bodies covered in white sheets. Victims in the main Calmette Hospital sprawled in beds, hallways and on floors barely able to move. Crowds of worried relatives gathered outside.

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Authorities denied reports that electrocution from bridge lighting worsened the death toll.

The bridge was closed Tuesday morning, still covered with shoes, clothing and other debris.

Prime Minister Hun Sen called for an investigation into the causes of the stampede and announced a national day of mourning Thursday. The government said it would pay the families of each dead victim $1,250 for funeral expenses and give each injured person $250.

“This is the biggest tragedy we have experienced in the last 31 years, since the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime,” the prime minister said in reference to the communist movement depicted in the film “The Killing Fields.” It was blamed for the deaths of 1.7 million people.

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Aya Kimura, a freelance journalist based in Cambodia, said the wail of sirens continued through Monday night. There are close calls with tragedy during most years of the water festival because of the huge numbers of people, she said, although this was the first such large-scale disaster.

Diamond Island, a man-made site, was recently constructed in the middle of the Bassac River off Phnom Penh in part as a platform for speculative condominium construction.

Soft drink vendor So Cheata told the Associated Press that the trouble began when about 10 people fell unconscious in the press of the crowd, setting off a panic that trampled many people underfoot.

Authorities estimated that about 2 million people were in Phnom Penh for the three-day festival known as Bon Om Touk. As is usual, the streets were filled with people from the rural areas camping out, many unused to urban infrastructure or large crowds.

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Residents said Cambodians would regard the large number of deaths as a bad omen.

The ancient festival is held on a full moon and includes boat races. It marks a time when the rainy season ends, fishing season starts and the river’s water, which flows upstream for half the year under pressure from the Mekong, reverses course.

mark.magnier@latimes.com

Times staff writer Magnier reported from New Delhi and special correspondent Pringle from Phnom Penh.


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