A stampede on a bridge in Cambodia’s capital killed at least 339 people and wounded nearly as many after thousands panicked on the last day of a water festival, authorities and state media said on Tuesday.
Witnesses said the stampede began after several people were electrocuted late on Monday on a small bridge lined with lights connecting Phnom Penh to nearby Diamond Island. Most drowned or suffocated, or were trampled to death trying to flee.
State television said at least 240 of the dead were women, citing reports from two city hospitals.
“People were carrying bodies of relatives, including children and women,” said Vann Thon, 25. “Everyone was looking scared.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen apologized for the disaster in which 329 people were wounded and ordered an investigation, as television footage showed relatives crying over the bodies of the dead piled up on each other.
“This is the biggest tragedy in more than 31 years after the Pol Pot regime,” he said, referring to the murderous Khmer Rouge, whose agrarian revolution from 1975-1979 killed an estimated 1.7 million people in Cambodia under the command of Pol Pot.
INVESTIGATION UNDER WAY
Hun Sen urged the country to remain calm and ruled out terrorism as a cause for the catastrophe, which took place on the third and final day of the Bon Om Touk water festival, which celebrates the reversing of the current of the Tonle Sap River.
“It needs further investigation,” he said, adding that Thursday would be a national day of mourning.
Diamond Island, a small island owned by a local bank, is equipped with newly built conference and exhibition centers, restaurants and entertainment areas.
It is popular among women shoppers, especially during the water festival when retailers offer discounts on clothing and other goods.
Many of the victims had been eating in outdoor restaurants or had attended a concert and were crossing the bridge to return to the city when the stampede started.
An estimated 5 million of Cambodia’s 14 million people visit the capital during the festival each year.
Phnom Penh police chief Touch Narouth told Reuters that “many people had died in the festival” but declined to elaborate during a rescue effort that went on into early Tuesday.
The stampede was the world’s worst since January 2006, when 362 Muslim pilgrims were crushed to death while performing a stoning ritual at the entrance to the Jamarat Bridge near Mecca in Saudi Arabia.