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Page last updated at 13:33 GMT, Tuesday, 28 April 2009 14:33 UK

Pope urges quake area 'rebirth'

The Pope visits survivors in the village of Onna

Pope Benedict XVI has visited central Italy to offer condolences to survivors of the quake that struck weeks ago.

Arriving in the devastated village of Onna, where about 40 people died, the Pope urged people to work towards the "rebirth" of the village and region.

Later in the regional capital L'Aquila, the Pope called for some "serious soul-searching" over whether shoddy building practices had contributed to the toll.

Nearly 300 people died in the 6.3 magnitude quake on 6 April.

Some 65,000 people are still homeless. Around 36,000 are living in tents while others are being put up in hotels.

Local prosecutors have opened an investigation to establish if there is any criminal blame connected with the number of collapsed buildings.

'Expressing my closeness'

On arrival in Onna, the Pope greeted local residents, kissing one baby held by its mother.

Forty of the village's 300 residents died in the earthquake, and the survivors now live in tents.

The Pope talks to a fire brigade chief as he visits the student dormitory in L'Aquila destroyed by the quake on 6 April

In some brief remarks, the Pope said the Church was sharing their pain, adding: "I would like to hug you affectionately one by one.

"I encourage everyone, institutions and businesses, to see that this village and this region are reborn," he said, according to AFP news agency, against a backdrop of a tent camp housing survivors.

"I have come in person to your splendid but devastated land, which is suffering times of great pain and vulnerability, to express my closeness to you in the most direct way possible."

The Pope received an emotional response from the residents and rescue workers he met.

One woman, Concetta De Angelis, marvelled at the pontiff visiting the hamlet.

"A pope has never come here. This village isn't even on the map!" she told Associated Press news agency.

Meanwhile, Germana D'Onofrio, a civil protection worker who cooks meals for the homeless, told AP: "I feed the body and the Pope feeds the spirit."

'Responsibility'

The pontiff then set off for L'Aquila, the capital of the Abruzzo region, stopping on the way at the Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio, one of the area's most famous churches which was badly damaged during the quake.

Map

Here, he suggested society must undertake some "serious soul-searching" to ensure that those behind the bad building practices thought to have exacerbated the impact of the earthquake took responsibility for their wrongdoing.

Experts have suggested more buildings should have withstood the quake, and there are allegations that in some cases an incorrect mix of sand and concrete was used to build them.

The Pope visited a student residence block where several young people lost their lives. It became a gathering point for distressed relatives during the search for survivors.

The students knelt before the Pope and kissed his hand, some visibly emotional. One gave him a letter, the AP reported.

He thanked rescue teams and medical staff for their response to the earthquake.

Later, a crowd gathered to hear the Pope speak and lead a prayer.

It was the Pope's first visit to the quake-affected area.

L'Aquila camp three weeks on

He sent out greetings to those "suffering from the earthquake" when he celebrated Easter Mass on St Peter's Square in the Vatican earlier this month.

He also sent chocolate Easter eggs to victims of the earthquake.

The authorities have said it could be weeks, if not months, before it is known which of the houses left standing are safe enough to be repaired and which will have to be demolished.



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