Italy quake survivors force U-turn over burials as more bodies found

The Italian government was forced into an embarrassing U-turn Monday, after the remote mountain community that suffered the heaviest death toll from last week's earthquake protested proposals to hold a funeral service somewhere else.

Rather than in the stricken town of Amatrice, authorities had suggested that a Mass could take place Tuesday in the provincial capital of Rieti, where dozens of bodies had already been taken. The city is at least 1 hour's drive away.

"We won't go to Rieti, give us back our dead," the ANSA news agency quoted unnamed survivors as telling representatives of Italy's civil protection agency, the Protezione Civile, at a campsite in Amatrice.

The change of plan was suggested because quake damage has forced the closure of some roads to Amatrice, making access more difficult. There was also the logistical challenge of finding a place that could host many coffins and a large crowd in a town that was razed to the ground.

But Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who was expected to attend along with President Sergio Mattarella, bowed to the demands.

"The funeral of the earthquake victims will take place in Amatrice as the mayor and the local community are demanding. And as it is right!" he wrote on Twitter.

The recovery of two more bodies from the rubble in Amatrice raised the official death toll to 292, Immacolata Postiglione, head of the emergency department at the Protezione Civile, said. She added that other victims were still trapped under collapsed buildings.

A state funeral was held Saturday for some of the victims from Arquata del Tronto, one of three municipalities affected by the disaster. Tuesday's service was due to honour some of the 231 who died in Amatrice and of the 11 dead from Accumoli.

Meanwhile, Renzi called in the help of world-renowned architect Renzo Piano to advise on the drafting of a large-scale plan to rebuild destroyed towns and improve earthquake resilience across Italy, one of the world's most seismically active countries.

"I told [Renzi]: 'We need a construction site that will last two generations,'" Piano said in a Monday interview with La Repubblica newspaper, adding that the long-term initiative would require "an international scope, with contributions from all over the world."

"We are talking about a 50-year, two-generation project," he said, adding that in the short term quake survivors should be accommodated in provisional "light buildings" that can later be dismantled easily and recycled.

The 78-year-old's works include the Pompidou arts centre in Paris and the Shard skyscraper in London. Previously, he contributed to post-earthquake reconstruction in L'Aquila, an Italian town destroyed by a quake in 2009, where he oversaw the construction of a new music hall.

In an online newsletter, Renzi said he would discuss "in the coming days" a Casa Italia (Home Italy) reconstruction and prevention plan with local authorities, trade unions, the construction lobby and environmentalists.

Italy is expected to ask European Union permission to derogate from deficit reduction targets to invest in earthquake safety. Upgrading existing buildings in the areas most at risk would cost almost 36 billion euros (40 billion dollars), according to the National Council of Engineers.

With many Italians wary of corruption scandals that plagued previous post-quake public works, the premier said towns will have to be rebuilt wisely, speedily and "in the most transparent way," under strict monitoring from Italy's Anti-Corruption Agency.

Survivors are also concerned about looting in evacuated homes. Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said Carabinieri police arrested a a couple caught stealing in Amatrice, and retrieved their booty, including clothes and a toy gun.

The destruction was caused by a magnitude-6 quake that early Wednesday struck an area about 150 kilometres north-east of Rome. It was followed by nearly 2,300 aftershocks, the National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology said.

Last update: Mon, 29/08/2016 - 18:58

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