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Saturday, November 04, 2006

Thousands turned out to cheer Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni as he officially opened the traditional Water Festival

Cambodia oarsmen wait at the start point during the first day of the annual Water Festival celebrations on the Mekong river in Phnom Penh November 4, 2006. About 24,000 oarsmen in more than 400 boats will compete in the three-day race. REUTERS/Chor Sokunthea (CAMBODIA)

Phnom Penh (dpa) - Thousands turned out to cheer Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni as he officially opened the traditional Water Festival on Saturday, apparently undaunted by earlier reports the event had been targeted by terrorists.

The king marked the official beginning of the colourful three-day celebration by lighting a torch which will burn for the duration of the festival, the centerpiece of which is the traditional longboat racing competition on the Tonle Sap river which runs through the capital.

Also in attendance for the official opening were Prime Minister Hun Sen, Senate chief Chea Sim and the new leader of the royalist Funcinpec Party, Keo Puth Rasmei.

Interior Ministry officials on Thursday revealed they had arrested six men and charged them with planning to bomb the festival and were still seeking more suspects in the foiled attack, and security will remain on high alert for the duration of the event.

Around 1.5 million people are expected to flood into the capital for the festival, which marks the end of the monsoon season and the reversal of the flow of the river.

The Tonle Sap is possibly the only major river in the world which changes directions with the change of seasons as monsoon flood waters stream out of the huge inland lake upriver and out into the sea.

Although 24,000 racers have turned out to man the hundreds of boats which will compete during the event, officials said crowds so far have been down on last year.

Visitors said they believed this was not due to fears of terror attacks, but rather the skyrocketing price of transport as petrol prices in the country continue to hover at around a dollar a liter.

"People just cannot afford to come from their home provinces to visit the capital. They don't care about terrorism, they are poor and they care about money," one provincial visitor from central Kampong Thom province, around 200 kilometers from the capital, said.

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