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Monday, December 8, 1997 Published at 09:10 GMT

image: [ BBC Correspondent: Orla Guerin ]Orla Guerin

In Italy, part of the famed Basilica of St Francis of Assisi is to reopen officially on Monday two months after the earthquakes which rocked central Italy, killing 12 people. The reopening of the Basilica's lower church is an important step forward symbolically, but Italy is still struggling to come to terms with the impact of the quakes, as our Rome correspondent Orla Guerin reports:

More than two months after the first of the earthquakes, Italy is still counting the cost in human and financial terms. The series of quakes, which began on September the twenty-sixth, claimed twelve lives and left 38,000 people out on the streets.

Since then, most have been living in temporary emergency accommodation with limited facilities. Now winter weather conditions are making life more difficult.

Most don't know if and when they will be able to return home. Italy's civil defence says many of those whose houses are still standing are too scared to go back to them.

If the human cost has been high, the artistic damage has also been immense. Most of the attention, domestic and international, has focused on the damage to the priceless frescoes in the Basilica of St Francis of Assisi.

It's unclear what can be salvaged from the shattered masterpieces and if and how they can be restored. In any event, the upper church, which was home to the frescoes, is not expected to reopen to the public before the year 2000.

But the Basilica is only one cultural treasure out of many hit by the quakes. Central Italy is crowded with important heritage sites; according to the latest estimate from the Culture Ministry, seventy per cent of them need significant repair work.

The government has already said it will provide $15m to cover the cost of initial repairs, but that's only a fraction of what may eventually be needed. In all, the estimate for the damage caused to Central Italy is now put at more than $2bn.

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