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Government decreases death toll in Cambodian stampede

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • Death toll is now 347, according to report
  • 221 of those were women
  • Newspaper says prime minister breaks into tears while laying wreath

Phnom Penh, Cambodia (CNN) -- The Cambodian government has decreased the official death toll from a stampede on a suspension bridge in the capital from 456 to 347, the Phnom Penh Post reported Thursday.

The newspaper cited a letter signed by Ith Sam Heng, minister of social affairs, and released on Thursday. "The total number of dead victims is 347," the letter said, and 221 of those were women.

Government investigators said Wednesday that the bridge swayed as thousands of people attempted to cross it Monday night during the Water Festival. That apparently led to fears it would collapse, triggering the stampede. Hundreds of others were injured in the incident.

Police fired water cannons to get people to continue moving across the footbridge, which leads to an island in the center of a river. "That just caused complete and utter panic," Steve Finch of the Phnom Penh Post told CNN.

Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife Bun Rany, along with senior government officials and hundreds of mourners, laid wreaths at the Diamond Island Bridge on Thursday, the newspaper reported, adding that the premier broke into tears.

The government said earlier it would help to transport the bodies of the dead and pay 5 million riel ($1,230) to the family of each of the deceased. Most of the bodies have been taken to their home provinces.

The three-day Water Festival is held each November to honor a victory by Cambodian naval forces during the 12th century reign of King Jayavarman VII, according to the country's tourism website.

During the festival, which includes boat races, participants pray for a good rice harvest and enough rain, and celebrate the full moon, the site says.

Visalsok Nou, a Cambodian Embassy official in Washington, said more than 4 million people were attending the Water Festival when the stampede occurred.

The country has set up a commission to look into the incident.

Journalist Sebastian Strangio contributed to this story from Phnom Penh for CNN.