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Cambodia stampede kills 375 and leaves government seeking answers

'We need to draw lessons from it,' says the government spokesman. A special investigative committee has been tasked with finding the cause of the deadly Cambodia stampede.

Cambodian police officers stand behind a barricade at the site where people stampeded during a water festival in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Nov. 23.

Heng Sinith/AP

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A day after a Cambodia stampede killed at least 375 people and injured more than 750, a pall fell over the capital as a national day of mourning shuttered schools and businesses and a difficult task began for the government.

A special investigative committee is seeking to determine what caused the tragedy and what can be done to prevent it from reoccurring.

“We set up an investigative committee to shed a light on this. We need to draw lessons from it,” says Cambodia's Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith.

Whatever the committee finds, it seemed immediately apparent that Phnom Penh was unprepared to handle a massive influx of tourists that nearly tripled the city’s population to 6 million and clogged roads and bridges during the annual Water Festival. The Tourism Ministry had promoted the festival nationally and internationally with travel packages, although it was unclear if the government increased basic safety measures such as crowd control ahead of the event.

Security focused on water, not land

Tragedy has struck during the festival in past years and safety precautions this year appeared to focus on water activities. One civilian drowned this year when wading into the Bassac River, one rower died in 2009, and five Singaporean rowers drowned in 2008 when their boat capsized.

“We concentrated our security on the water,” says Mr. Khieu. “From the beginning, [Prime Minister] Hun Sen made recommendations to check all the possible risks. Everybody was looking on the security on the water, and then this happened.”

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