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Australia mourns victims of deadly wildfires

AUSTRALIANS gathered at ceremonies large and small today for an official day of mourning for the victims of the country's deadliest wildfires.

Forensic investigators in the disaster zone took a break from their grim search for more bodies among the ruins of homes razed by some of the hundreds of fires that swept southern Victoria state on Feb. 7, killing more than 200 people.

Thousands of people - including Prime Minister Kevin Rudd - came together at a sports stadium in the Victorian capital of Melbourne to honor the dead.

"These fires have united us all in grief. They have united us all in our response, and they unite us all in the task of rebuilding. Because we will rebuild," Victorian Premier John Brumby said at the ceremony.

Thousands more gathered to watch the ceremony on giant screens erected elsewhere in Melbourne, other cities and at towns in the scorched region.

Queen Elizabeth's daughter Princess Anne flew to Australia to attend the ceremony and hundreds of survivors were brought on busses from the stricken region.

Other survivors living in tents or with friends since they lost their homes came together in parks and public areas to watch the ceremony and grieve.

All of Australia's television networks interrupted their normal programing to broadcast the ceremony live.

At the start of the Melbourne ceremony, Rudd, Princess Anne and other dignitaries walked two-by-two up to a large wreath standing before a large stage, each adding one white flower. Bells were rung, and a didgeridoo droned solemn notes as firefighters in uniform also added flowers to the wreath.

Helped by years and drought and furnace-like conditions, the Feb. 7 fires ripped across more than 3,900 square kilometers burning all before them. More than 1,800 farms and homes were destroyed.

The confirmed death toll stood at 209 on Sunday, but officials said they were still finding bodies in the ruins and the tally would grow further.

"We are picking up the pieces after the worst natural disaster in Australia's history," Brumby said at the ceremony.

"Devastating fires that have taken family, friends neighbors and work mates," he said. "Destructive fires that tore at the very heart of communities. Indiscriminate fires that have taken too many and too much. Monstrous fires that swept across our state. Fires that turned day into night. Fires that consumed all before them in an inferno of wind and smoke and flame."

In the town of Whittlesea, which has become a center for relief efforts for the ruined hamlets around Kinglake, weeping residents gathered at a park to watch the broadcast ceremony.


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