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Thousands In Italy Gather to Mourn Quake Victims

Thousands of people have attended a state funeral in Italy for the nearly 300 people who died in the Abruzzo earthquake.

Flower-covered wooden coffins were lined up on the grounds of a police academy in L'Aquila, the epicenter of the 6.3 magnitude quake that hit the region early Monday at the start of Holy Week.

The Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, presided over the Good Friday funeral Mass. The funeral was held outdoors because none of the region's churches are stable enough.

The funeral required a special dispensation from Pope Benedict because mass is not usually celebrated on Good Friday in the Roman Catholic church.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and other key government officials were among the thousands attending the ceremony. Mr. Berlusconi, shortly before departing for L'Aquila for the funeral, expressed deep emotion over the victims of the quake.

Once he arrived at the funeral, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi comforted mourners, shaking hands and giving hugs before the ceremony began.

Pope Benedict urged quake survivors to be courageous and hopeful.

"This is the time to work together," the pope said in a message read by his secretary, Monsignor Georg Gaenswein.

"In this dramatic hour, when such an immense tragedy has hit this land, I feel spiritually present amongst you to share your sadness and to implore God for eternal peace for the victims and the quick recovery of the injured. And for all to continue to have courage without succumbing to desperation," he said.

At least 16 children, including a five-month-old baby, were among those killed by Monday's 6.3 magnitude earthquake. Small white caskets containing children's bodies lay on top of their parents'. They held mementos of their short lives: a boy's toy motorcycle and a baby's powder blue T-shirt with a Tweetie Bird design.

Flags flew at half staff on a national day of mourning, shops lowered shutters, airports stopped take-offs for a minute's silence and traffic wardens removed their bright jackets.

Some of the 289 victims had already been buried privately. Funerals for the first victims were held Wednesday.

President Napolitano has criticized what he called "widespread irresponsibility" and lax building standards he blamed for the scale of damage from the earthquake.

The Italian government has moved to ease financial pressures on the survivors.

It has approved a package of emergency financial measures providing money to pay rents, and suspending gas and electricity bills for two months.

The quake left about 28,000 people homeless. Many are living in tent camps and eating from field kitchens.

Pope Benedict said he plans to visit the area as soon as possible. Vatican officials said the trip will come shortly after the Easter holiday on Sunday.