PHNOM PENH, Nov 23 – Cambodia began the grim task on Tuesday of identifying almost 350 people, many of them women, crushed to death in a bridge stampede when revellers panicked at a huge water festival in Phnom Penh.
Hundreds more people were injured in the disaster, Cambodia\’s deadliest in decades, which took place late on Monday on an overcrowded narrow bridge as millions celebrated the end of the annual three-day event.
Prime Minister Hun Sen described the disaster as Cambodia\’s darkest hour since the Khmer Rouge, whose 1975-1979 reign of terror left up to a quarter of the Cambodian population dead.
"This is the biggest tragedy since the Pol Pot regime," Hun Sen said in a live television broadcast, referring to the Khmer Rouge\’s late leader.
He said Cambodia would hold a national day of mourning on Thursday.
The stampede killed 347 people and left another 410 injured, with many of the deaths caused by suffocation and internal injuries, government spokesman Khieu Kanharith told AFP.
About two thirds of the dead were women, he said.
It was not immediately clear what had triggered the disaster, but Kanharith said a rumour had spread among the revellers that the bridge was unstable.
"So panic started. It was too crowded and they had nowhere to run," he said. "Now we need to identify the bodies."
Several hundred worried relatives were gathered outside the city\’s Calmette Hospital trying to identify missing loved ones.
Rows of bodies were laid out under a white tent erected over the hospital car park, an AFP reporter said, and people were straining to catch a glimpse of the dead.
Six policemen were fingerprinting the victims, while all around people made frantic phone calls describing the outfits of the deceased.
Their uncovered faces showed many had sustained bloody bruises during the stampede.
One woman said she recognised her 16-year-old niece in the makeshift morgue.
"I heard she was killed last night, so I came here and I saw her body," Som Khov, 51, told AFP. "I heard she died from an electric shock."
At the scene of the tragedy, sunglasses and flip-flops were left scattered on the ground among lifeless bodies. Police were seen carrying away some of the victims while others were laid in a row on the ground.
Witnesses reported people pushing and shoving in the crowd as the stampede broke out.
"We were crossing the bridge to Diamond Island when people started pushing from the other side. There was lots of screaming and panic," 23-year-old Kruon Hay told AFP at the scene.
"People started running and were falling over each other. I fell too. I only survived because other people pulled me up. Many people jumped in the water," he said.
The premier said the government would arrange for the bodies of out-of-town visitors to be sent home.
Many festival goers were left in tears after the tragic end to the three days of boat races, concerts and fireworks.
The annual festival, one of Cambodia\’s largest and most exuberant, marks the reversal of the flow between the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers.
It is also seen as a way of giving thanks to the river for providing the country with fertile land and abundant fish.
The event – which saw hundreds of brightly coloured boats take part in races on the Tonle Sap river – is popular with tourists but there were no immediate reports that foreigners were among the victims.
The last time the festival was marred by tragedy was in 2007 when five Singaporeans were killed after their dragon boat, carrying 22 men, capsized at the end of their race.
Accidents are common during the races, which involve long, thin boats crewed by as many as 70 rowers, which compete against each other in the sometimes choppy waters in front of Phnom Penh\’s royal palace.