10 Apr 2009

Italy mourns as mass funeral held for quake victims

10:17 pm on 10 April 2009

A mass funeral for victims of the Abruzzo earthquake was held on Friday, amid a day of national mourning in Italy.

Monday's quake measured 6.3 on the Richter scale, flattening houses, ancient churches and other buildings in 26 cities and towns in central Italy.

The region's capital, L'Aquila, bore the brunt of the quake, which has killed at least 289 people and injured more than 1000. An estimated 28,000 people are homeless.

The families of those who died and senior politicians are among those who are attending the state funeral near L'Aquila. At least 150 victims are being buried on Friday, local reports say.

Meanwhile, Italy's president said poor construction was to blame for many of the deaths. Visiting the region on Thursday, Giorgio Napolitano said there had been "widespread irresponsibility" in the design and construction of modern buildings.

The government plans to suspend some tax, utility and phone bills in the affected areas and has earmarked 100 million euros for rescue, relief and reconstruction efforts. Italian banks may also suspend mortgage payments and bank charges for survivors.

The search for people who could still be alive under the rubble has been extended until Sunday. But rescue workers believe the chances of finding anyone alive are remote and so will focus on recovering bodies and assessing the extent of the damage.

Aftershocks are continuing to hamper rescue efforts. On Thursday evening a tremor measuring 4.9, the fourth-largest since the earthquake, brought down a badly damaged four-storey building in the centre of L'Aquila.

Dozens of coffins bedecked with flowers lay in four rows at the funeral site, attended by grieving relatives.

The Mass is being celebrated by the Archbishop of L'Aquila, Giuseppe Molinari, and a senior representative of the Pope, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. At the end of the Christian service, an imam will pray at the coffins of six Muslim victims.

President Napolitano and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi are also attending. Mr Berlusconi was seen comforting victims' relatives before the ceremony.

Pope Benedict XVI said he would visit the region "as soon as possible", although a Vatican spokesman said this was unlikely to happen within the next two weeks.

Monday's earthquake was Italy's worst since November 1980, when a quake measuring 6.5 killed 2,735 people. Many of the medieval villages surrounding L'Aquila were virtually flattened.