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Italy to hold quake funeral, rescuers dig in rubble

world Updated: Apr 08, 2009 17:59 IST
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Italy prepared on Wednesday to begin burying some of the 250 people killed in medieval towns flattened by a quake, while rescuers hampered by aftershocks hunted for people buried alive by rubble.

A mass state funeral for the victims and national day of mourning is expected to be held on Friday, Italian officials said, although the first private service was due on Wednesday.

The death toll climbed overnight to 250 when rescuers pulled out 15 more bodies from the rubble. In Rome, Pope Benedict again prayed for the victims and said he would visit the area soon.

With about 17,000 people made homeless by Italy's worst quake in three decades, thousands of distraught people passed a fitful night in tent villages, terrified by a series of strong aftershocks felt in mountainous Abruzzo and in nearby Rome.

The strongest aftershock on Tuesday night toppled buildings, including parts of the basilica and the station in the historic city of L'Aquila, which bore the brunt of the disaster.

L'Aquila's mayor said the 5.6 magnitude aftershock killed one resident and in Rome, 100 km (60 miles) to the west, furniture shook in the upper floors of buildings.

"We're in shock because we have lost our loved ones, the town has been reduced to rubble with over 40 dead and lots of them were young, a whole generation cancelled out," said Antonella Massi in Onna, a village that once had 300 residents and was left with hardly a building untouched by the quake.

Some 20 tent camps and 16 field kitchens to house and feed 14,000 people were set up after Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi declared a national emergency and sent troops to the area.

The impact of the quake on Italy's national economy, already reeling from the worst recession since World War Two, should be minimal, economists say, and Berlusconi has turned down foreign aid offers, though European Union and U.S. money is likely to be used for emergency housing and reconstruction.

But officials say it will have a huge impact on a local level in a region which mostly lives off tourism, agriculture and small, family-run businesses.

Berlusconi vowed to build a whole new town near L'Aquila and Agriculture Minister Luca Zaia, visiting Onna, urged Italians to help the region's economy "by thinking of them when the holiday season begins and principally buying products from Abruzzo".

GRIM EASTER

The survivors face a grim Easter weekend. With many local churches badly damaged, people prepared to celebrate the feast in makeshift chapels in the tent villages.

The government and hotel owners offered free shelter for the homeless in hotels on the Adriatic coast.

"Go to the coast. It's Easter, take a break and we will pay for it," Berlusconi told victims at a tent camp on Tuesday.

At least 250 bodies were being stored in a makeshift mortuary at a school for Italy's Finance Police outside L'Aquila, local media reported.

On Tuesday night rescuers burst into applause when a 20-year-old woman was found alive 42 hours after the quake in the ruins of a four-storey building.

"A rescue like this is worth six months work," said Claudio, a fire-fighter from Venice.

Many of the victims were students at L'Aquila's university. A fire-fighter from the port of Pescara who came to help rescue efforts collapsed in tears after unearthing the body of his stepdaughter, who was studying there.

Italian soccer teams said revenue from this weekend's matches would be sent to help victims. Universities, papers and TV channels took collections, while hotels provided thousands of cheap rooms for survivors and rescuers.

Police increased their patrols on the streets amid reports of looting of homes and shops and some residents and experts expressed anger that even supposedly earthquake-proof modern buildings had collapsed.

"In California, an earthquake like this one would not have killed a single person," said Franco Barberi, head of a committee assessing quake risks at the Civil Protection Agency.

Monday's quake was particularly lethal because it struck shortly after 3:30 a.m. (0130 GMT) as residents slept.

Flattening houses, centuries-old churches and other buildings in 26 cities and towns, it was the worst since November 1980, when some 2,735 people died in southern Italy.

(Writing by Philip Pullella and Stephen Brown; additional reporting by Antonio Denti and Rome bureau; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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