More than 340 people have been killed in a bridge stampede in Cambodia's capital, marking a tragic end to an annual water festival.
Most died after being crushed or drowned following a panic as people rushed across a narrow bridge leading to an island in Phnom Penh, where celebrations were held to mark the close of the festival on Monday.
About three million people attended the three-day festival.
Authorities said the death toll had reached 349. Some 455 others were believed injured.
The toll is expected to rise, officials said.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said over local Bayon TV that it was the worst Cambodian tragedy since the murderous
Khmer Rouge's agrarian revolution from 1975-1979, which killed an
estimated 1.7 million people under the command of the notorious Pol Pot.
In Monday's tragedy, many died after jumping from the bridge across a tributary of the Tonle Sap river.
Some witnesses said people were crossing the bridge linked to Diamond Island at night when suddenly there was a lot of pushing and shoving amid rumors that the bridge was about to collapse.
Map showing the location of the deadly stampede. RFA
"I was on the ground for two to three hours. No one helped me. People stepped on me all the time," a man, identifying himself as just Sophal, told RFA, relieved that he was alive.
"While I was crossing the river at 8:30 p.m., I heard people screaming that the bridge will collapse. There was chaos, and people fainted and some jumped off the bridge for survival," said another man, aged 20 but who did not identify himself, in a separate interview.
One unconfirmed report said the stampede began after several people were
electrocuted. The bridge was lined with neon light decorations, which were still still burning brightly as families wept over the dead.
Government relief workers and members of the public helped place the bodies and the injured at several key locations before they were transferred to four hospitals.
The area where the stampede occurred was littered with discarded slippers, shoes, clothing and water bottles.
Hun Sen said the government was not convinced by accounts of how the stampede occurred, saying that a committee will be established to determine the circumstances leading to the tragedy. Autopsies will be studied, he said.
He declared Nov. 25 as a national day of mourning and said immediate compensation for funeral arrangements would be given to the families of those killed.Young Cambodians
Many of the dead appeared to be young Cambodians.
Diamond island is owned by a local bank and equipped with newly built conference and exhibition centers, restaurants and entertainment areas.
It was in full party mood on Monday night. Many of the victims were crossing the bridge to return to the city when the stampede was believed to have started.
The annual water 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 Cambodian tragedy is believed to be the worst stampede in nearly five years.
In January 2006, 362 Muslim pilgrims were crushed to death while performing a stoning ritual at the entrance to the Jamarat Bridge near Mecca in Saudi Arabia.Reported by Leng Maly, Uon Chhin, Hong Sokunthea, Sum Sokry, and Chea Sotheachea of RFA's Cambodian service. Translated by Poly Sam and Yun Samean. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.