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Australia mourns bushfire victims

22 February 09 13:20 GMT

Australia has held a day of mourning for the victims of bushfires which swept across the state of Victoria, claiming more than 200 lives.

At a memorial service in the state capital, Melbourne, PM Kevin Rudd said destroyed communities would be rebuilt.

Many at the service had to be bussed in from towns and villages stricken by the bushfires, having lost their cars and their homes to the flames.

Firemen continue to battle fresh blazes and some bodies are still to be found.

At least 209 people died as the worst bushfires in Australia's living memory swept through Victoria on 7 February - a day that has become known as Black Saturday.

Australia has launched its biggest-ever arson investigation into the causes of the fires.

One man has already been charged with starting one of the blazes and police suspect arson in at least one other case.

'United in grief'

Church bells rang out across Victoria to mark the start of the national day of mourning.

At the main ceremony, a mourning service at Melbourne's Rod Laver Arena, Australian dignitaries, fire survivors and rescue workers were joined by Princess Anne, on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II.

Many of the 50,000 in the arena wore the distinctive yellow overalls of Australia's firefighters.

Members of the audience were handed tiny silver bells to remember the dead and yellow ribbons as a symbol of their resolve to rebuild destroyed communities.

Australia's prime minister told those gathered that Australians had stood as one through the crisis with courage, compassion and resilience.

"As a people we weep for the lost, we tend to the injured, we console the suffering, and yet our work has just begun," Kevin Rudd said. "Let us resolve to rebuild together."

He said flags would be flown at half mast and a minute's silence would be held each 7 February to remember those who had died in the fires.

Victoria Premier John Brumby said Australians were picking up the pieces after the worst disaster in the nation's history.

"Today we are united in grief, but we are also united in our determination to recover, to rebuild, and we will rebuild," he said.

"And we will remember today and into the future all of those who lost their lives, and who gave so much on Black Saturday."

The ceremony was broadcast across the country and thousands gathered elsewhere to watch.

High temperatures forecast

Princess Anne paid tribute to those caught up in the tragedy.

"Individuals and towns have responded with resilience, ingenuity, courage and selflessness to situations that were changing at terrifying speed," she said.

"People from around Australia and across the world watched in horror but with admiration at their response."

The 90-minute ceremony included a minute's silence as well as performances by choirs from across Victoria.

Princess Anne is now due to visit the bushfires' Incident Emergency Control Centre in Melbourne before travelling on Monday to some of the fire-devastated areas.

The blazes destroyed hundreds of properties and left thousands of people homeless.

Forecasters warn that high temperatures and wind conditions expected on Monday could worsen the situation.

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