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. Rudd says Australia will rise from 'ashes of despair'

by Staff Writers
Melbourne (AFP) Feb 22, 2009
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd pledged Sunday that wildfire-scarred Australia would rise from the "ashes of despair," as the blazes that killed more than 200 people threatened to flare again.

Joined by Britain's Princess Anne, Rudd led a national day of mourning in leading a memorial ceremony at Rod Laver Arena to honour those killed in the February 7 disaster in rural Victoria state.

"We rise together in hope from the ashes of despair," Rudd told the ceremony as the Southern Cross constellation featured on the Australian flag was beamed onto the closed roof of the stadium in Melbourne.

Rudd expressed sympathy for "unspeakable suffering" endured in the bushfires but said Australia was there to support devastated communities, some virtually wiped off the map by the intensity of the flames.

The prime minister pledged "a solemn contract with each of these communities to rebuild: brick by brick, home by home, school by school, church by church, street by street, community by community."

"You who suffer are not alone," he said at the ceremony, pledging Australia would fly flags at half-mast every February 7 to remember the victims of "Black Saturday."

"This great Australian family here assembled and across the nation today is with you."

The memorial coincided with a fresh warning from firefighters that the crisis was not yet over, with more than two dozen communities east of Melbourne warned to be on high alert amid extreme fire conditions.

Victoria's Country Fire Authority warned that residents wishing to flee should do so either on Sunday evening or Monday morning -- and in no circumstances attempt a last-minute dash to safety in their cars.

"Traffic may become congested," the CFA said. "Being on the roads is dangerous during a fire threat," he said.

Thousands of volunteer firefighters are still battling the blazes that have burned out 450,000 hectares (1.1 million acres).

They were represented at the memorial service, standing in orange overalls alongside bishops at a ceremony that was televised across the country.

Victoria state premier John Brumby said many people were still picking up the pieces after the firestorms killed at least 209 people and destroyed 1,800 homes, "tearing at the very heart of communities."

"Monstrous fires... swept across our state, fires that turned day into night, that consumed all before them in an inferno of wind and smoke and flames," he said.

"These fires have united all in grief."

Mourners wore small silver bells to remember the dead and yellow ribbons as a symbol of their determination to rebuild communities razed in the infernos.

To the slow drone of an Aboriginal didgeridoo, survivors remembered each village and hamlet wiped out in the fires.

CFA volunteer Misty Dawn Thorose said the service was a chance to take stock after the frenetic activity of recent weeks.

Representing Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Anne praised the reaction of communities to the fires.

"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."

Governor General Quentin Bryce said the memorial service was also about making a commitment to rebuilding devastated communities.

"In time, what was will be restored -- no matter how colossal the effort," she said.

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China quake victims clash with police: rights group
Beijing (AFP) Feb 20, 2009
More than 2,000 victims of last year's massive earthquake in China clashed with police over alleged misuse of reconstruction funds and the death of a protester in custody, a rights group said Friday.

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