Italy mourns earthquake victims

Italy marks a day of mourning with a state funeral set for the nearly 300 dead in this week's earthquake.

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Italy marked a day of mourning with a state funeral set for the nearly 300 dead in this week's devastating earthquake and as many survivors remained desperate for shelter. Flags flew at half mast across the country as the Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian president Giorgio Napolitano and Roman Catholic Church leaders were expected to join mourners for the open-air service to be celebrated by the Vatican's number two, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.

About 200 coffins were arrayed for today's funeral in the vast square courtyard of a police training centre. Burials will follow at L'Aquila's main cemetery on a hillside not far from the walled medieval city in central Italy, the quake's epicentre that is now a ghost town. Many families of the at least 287 people reported dead as of early today have already buried their loved ones privately. L'Aquila's Archbishop Giuseppe Molinari will co-celebrate the observance, which will include Muslim prayers for the six Muslim dead.

The earthquake struck early on Monday, turning the mountainous area around L'Aquila into a disaster zone and flattening some surrounding villages. Local churches have been badly hit and priests in the predominantly Catholic country have led masses in tent camps for survivors. Tens of thousands of people have been forced to leave their homes, many desperate after spending a fourth cold night in their cars, as strong aftershocks continued to shake the region.

Nerves have frayed over alleged delays in the rescue effort and apparent poor quality construction blamed for increasing the death toll in this earthquake-prone area of the Apennine mountains forming Italy's "spine". Prosecutors have opened an inquiry into building standards. As he toured the disaster zone yesterday, Mr Napolitano blamed "widespread irresponsibility" for the collapse of many modern buildings and called for an "examination of conscience" by those responsible.

"How is it possible that essential standards were not applied, and why were the necessary inspections not carried out?" the Italian president asked. The Italian government has estimated 1.3 billion euros (Dh6.3bn) will be needed to repair or rebuild some 10,000 buildings damaged in the quake. It has pledged to suspend taxes in the region and promised state aid for retailers and farmers whose businesses have been ruined, but critics have said the measures are not enough.

Pope Benedict XVI is expected to visit the region after Easter. *AFP