At least 20 die in stampede at Cambodian festival

2 million gathered to celebrate the 3-day water festival; havoc began after 10 fainted

By Sopheng Cheang
Published November 22, 2010 6:34PM (EST)

Thousands of Cambodians celebrating a water festival by the river in the Cambodian capital stampeded Monday night, leaving more than 20 people dead and the area littered with hundreds of injured. The panic was exacerbated as the crowd rushed to cross a bridge, and some fell into the water.

Ambulances raced back and forth between the river and the hospital for several hours after the stampede, while onlookers and relatives waited outside. The death toll seemed likely to rise sharply, as many of the injured appeared to be badly hurt, and local medical facilities have limited capacity.

An employee of Calmette Hospital, where most of the casualties were being taken, said earlier that it had received 17 bodies, and an Associated Press reporter later saw an army truck bring another five. The hospital employee spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said he did not have complete figures but that at least 10 people had died in the chaos.

Authorities had estimated that upward of 2 million people would descend on Phnom Penh for the three-day water festival, which marks the end of the rainy season and whose main attraction is traditional boat races along the Tonle Sap river. Monday night marked the end of the holiday.

The last race ended in early evening, and the panic started later on Koh Pich -- Diamond Island -- a long spit of land in the river where a concert was being held. It was unclear how many people were on the island to celebrate the holiday, though the area appeared to be packed with people, as was much of the waterfront.

Soft drink vendor So Cheata said the trouble began when about 10 people fell unconscious in the press of the crowd. She said that set off a panic, which then turned into a stampede, with many people caught underfoot.

Khieu Kanharith gave a similar account of the cause.

Part of the crowd pushed onto a bridge, which also jammed up, with people falling under others and off the bridge. So Cheata said hundreds of hurt people lay on the ground afterward. Some appeared to be unconscious.

Police and other officials were unable to immediately provide more details, saying they were too busy attending to the injured.

Cambodia is one of the region's poorer countries, and has an underdeveloped health system, with hospitals barely able to cope with daily medical demands.

Sopheng Cheang

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