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Cambodia mourns stampede victims

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Buddhist monks pray during a funeral of Cambodian stampede victims (AP)

Thousands of Cambodians have lit candles and made offerings to appease the souls of those who perished in a riverside stampede that left nearly 400 people dead, as investigators tried to determine the cause of the tragedy.

The mass deaths happened on Monday as tens of thousands of panicked people tried to flee an island in the Bassac River across a narrow bridge during a traditional festival. What sparked the hysteric surge is unclear.

Witnesses have criticised authorities for causing congestion by blocking a second bridge across the river despite the huge crowds that had gathered for the festival, as well as blaming a slow and confused emergency response after the disaster.

Officials say 378 people were killed and at least 755 others injured.

Prime minister Hun Sen has described the stampede on Koh Pich – Diamond Island – as the biggest tragedy since the communist Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, which left an estimated 1.7 million people dead in the late 1970s. He declared Thursday a day of national mourning.

Tens of thousands of residents across the capital Phnom Penh carried out rituals at their homes to appease the victims’ souls.

One woman said that people believed that after a tragedy on such a scale the souls of the dead would gather in the city and may wreak harm if not properly appeased.

“I asked their souls to rest in peace and not to be angry with those still alive in the capital, especially my family members and relatives,” said Meng Houth, 52, who laid out a banana, cans of rice and salt along with incense and a candle in front of her home.

City police chief Touch Naroth said investigators were still trying to determine the cause of the tragedy but suggested that the bridge’s small size may have contributed. “This is a lesson for us,” he said on state TV.

Survivors have recounted desperate struggles on the bridge in one of the rivers running past Phnom Penh, where a huge crowd had come to celebrate the last night of a three-day holiday marking the end of the monsoon rain season. As many as two million people are believed to have come to the capital to watch traditional boat races and many stayed on for a concert held on the island that the bridge led to.

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