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      Probe finds bridge sway set off Cambodian stampede

      Cambodian Buddhist monks pray for victims / AP photo

      PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) " A swaying bridge loaded with thousands of people sparked mass panic and set off a raging stampede that killed more than 350 people in Cambodia's capital, according to a government investigation.

      Crowds celebrating a water festival had flocked to an island for a free concert Monday and spilled onto a bridge to the mainland before the panic took hold. Bayon TV, which serves as a mouthpiece for the government, reported Wednesday that a committee found many people on the span were from the countryside and unaware it was normal for a suspension bridge to sway. In their fear it was collapsing, they tried to run off.


      Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said Wednesday the official death toll was 351 dead with 395 injured.

      Prime Minister Hun Sen 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. He declared a day of national mourning for Thursday.

      As many as 2 million people are believed to have come to Phnom Penh for celebrations of a three-day holiday marking the end of the monsoon rain season. Tens of thousands were on an island in the capital's Bassac River.

      Thousands of Cambodians on Wednesday lit candles and made offerings to appease the souls of those who perished.

      "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, a 52-year-old woman who laid out food and burned incense and a candle in front of her home.

      Witnesses had criticized authorities for causing congestion by blocking a second bridge across the river despite the huge crowds that gathered for the festival, and for a slow and confused emergency response. A huge crowd had come to celebrate the last night of the celebration.

      The investigating committee, which included Cabinet ministers and city officials, said the panic was exacerbated by the trouble people had breathing because they were so closely packed together. It estimated 7,000-8,000 people were on the bridge, adding up to a load of 350-400 tons.

      The report said the committee based its conclusions on investigations and the testimony of witnesses.

      Before the stampede erupted, those present heard shouts the bridge was going to collapse, igniting the panic that also saw people jump off the sides into the water.

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