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Australians mourn bushfire victims

AUSTRALIANS held a national day of mourning for the victims of wildfires that killed hundreds this month, and survivors were promised the nation would support them in the massive task of rebuilding.

Tears flowed as Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said the hellish blazes of "Black Saturday" on February 7, which killed more than 200 people, had tested the nation's character, and the response was courage, compassion and resilience.

"In recent days we have witnessed unspeakable suffering," Rudd said at a mourning ceremony broadcast nationally. "We have lost mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, we have lost brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, the tiniest of children.

"All these are precious lives. No words can provide solace for grief so personal. But simply know this: You who suffer are not alone," he said.

Rudd said governments at all levels had failed communities hit by tragedy in the past, and this must not be allowed in the fire-devastated towns.

He promised "a solemn contract with each of these communities to rebuild, brick by brick, home by home, school by school, church by church, street by street."

He also announced that the tragedy would be marked each February 7 by the lowering of flags on government buildings to half-staff and a moment's silence.

Thousands of Australians gathered at ceremonies large and small yesterday for victims of the country's deadliest wildfires. Survivors gathered at parks and city residents in public areas, where giant screens broadcast the ceremony.

Forensic investigators in the disaster zone took a break from their grim search for more bodies. The confirmed death toll stood at 209 yesterday, but officials said they were still finding bodies and the tally would rise.

"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," Victoria state Premier John Brumby said at the main ceremony.


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