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Italy holds state funeral as quake toll hits 289

ITALY held a state funeral today for victims of its worst earthquake in three decades, as the death toll climbed to 289 and survivors voiced anger that houses simply collapsed.

Thousands of mourners gathered before 205 coffins, many of them covered by flowers and photos of the dead, laid out in rows on the parade ground of a police academy in the mountain city of L'Aquila, the worst hit by Monday's 6.3 magnitude quake.

Small white caskets with the bodies of children lay on their parents' coffins, some with a favourite toy placed on top. "There is a lot of sadness today, but also a lot of anger," said Piero Faro, who came to pay his respects to family friend Paola Pugliesi, 65, who died with her son Giuseppe, 45. "Their building simply disintegrated. This should not have happened."

Some mourners kissed the coffins and were comforted by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi before a Catholic mass conducted by the second highest priest in the Vatican, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. The ceremony began with a message from Pope Benedict.

"In these dramatic hours when a fearful tragedy has blighted this land, I feel spiritually present in your midst and share your anguish," said the message from the pope.

Flags flew at half mast around Italy on a national day of mourning, shops lowered their shutters or turned off lights and traffic wardens removed their brightly-coloured jackets.

Five days after the earthquake, rescuers were still digging bodies from the rubble, with a 53-year-old woman and her teenage daughter found dead in the wreckage of their home overnight.

But the Civil Protection agency, which is coordinating Italy's response to the crisis, said the search was almost over.

Violent aftershocks, some felt in nearby Rome, continued to shake Abruzzo region overnight, damaging buildings in medieval towns and terrifying the 17,000 people living in tent villages. Thousands more survivors are being put up in hotels.


"We thank the people of Abruzzo for their seriousness, civility, dignity and composure," said Berlusconi. "Today we pay homage to their dead, who are our dead."

Attention is now starting to turn to the reconstruction of a region that relies on tourism, farming and family firms. Italy's industry minister said more than half of the companies in Abruzzo "are no longer producing".

One estimate put the damage at up to 3 billion euros ($4 billion), but its impact on Italy's nearly 2-trillion-euro economy, already mired in recession, is expected to be limited.

Berlusconi, who has dubbed L'Aquila a "ghost town", said the country would receive up to 500 million euros from an EU fund to help cover some of the reconstruction bills.

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 government has also announced an enquiry. President Giorgio Napolitano yesterday said shoddy construction was to blame for the collapse of modern buildings, including a hospital and student hostel, that should have been earthquake-proof.

"People need to search their consciences," he said.

Local builders, however, said some of the damage would prove to be superficial.

"We are not killers," said builder Filiberto Cicchetti. "Ninety percent of private housing built outside the city walls from the '60s on is still viable ... The city will be reborn."


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