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Italy mourns quake dead as hope for survivors wanes

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Hopes were fading Saturday of finding more survivors under the rubble of the devastating earthquake in central Italy, which has already claimed at least 281 lives.

[ROME] Hopes were fading Saturday of finding more survivors under the rubble of the devastating earthquake in central Italy, which has already claimed at least 281 lives.

The first funerals for victims of the devastating quake that hit the mountainous region this week were held Friday as the country prepared for an emotionally charged day of mourning.

Flags will fly at half-mast across the country on Saturday in respect for the victims of a disaster that killed at least 281 lives and left another 388 injured, according to an updated official toll.

The Civil Protection agency's emergency unit said no new survivors had been found Friday in the remote mountain villages blitzed by Wednesday's powerful pre-dawn quake.

At least 388 people have been hospitalised with injuries. No one has been pulled alive from the piles of collapsed masonry since Wednesday evening.

"We will go on searching and digging until we are certain there is no one left," said Luigi D'Angelo, a Civil Protection officer working in the town of Amatrice, where the death toll stands at 221.

Forestry police officer Valerio Checchi said he expected rescuers to shortly start using mechanical diggers to move debris in a sign virtually all hope of finding survivors has gone.

"We will still use thermal devices that can detect the presence of human bodies." said Mr Checchi.

At least eight foreigners were among the dead, according to updates from foreign ministries.

Britain's foreign office on Friday confirmed that a British couple in their 50s had been killed in the quake as well as a 14-year-old boy, and Romania said two of its nationals, who were living in Italy, had also died.

Spain, Canada and El Salvador each said that one of their citizens had perished.

As powerful aftershocks closed winding mountain roads and made life dangerous for more than 4,000 professionals and volunteers engaged in the rescue effort, survivors voiced dazed bewilderment over the scale of the disaster that struck their sleepy communities.

"I have been through earthquakes before, but this was not a quake, it was an apocalypse," said Anacleto Perotti, 66.

This resident of the tiny hamlet of St Lorenzo Flaviano has gone back to his house, which survived the quake. But he is sleeping in an armchair.

"It is too scary in bed. After a quake comes fear, depression takes you over from the inside." Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has declared a state of emergency for the regions affected by Wednesday's quake, which occurred in an area that straddles Umbria, Lazio and Marche.

Mr Renzi also released an initial tranche of 50 million euros (S$76 million) in emergency aid.

The first funerals took place in Pomezia, south of Rome, home of six of the victims, including an eight-year-old boy.

Mr Renzi and President Sergio Mattarella will on Saturday attend a funeral service in the city of Ascoli-Piceno for some of the 46 people who died in the mountain villages of Arquata del Tronto and Pescara del Tronto.

The youngest local victim was three or four years old, the oldest in her 90s.

Over 2,000 people who spent the night in hastily-erected tented villages were shaken by a 4.8 magnitude aftershock just after 6:00am (0400 GMT) on Friday morning.

More than 900 aftershocks have rattled the region since Wednesday's quake, which had a magnitude of 6.0-6.2 and triggered the collapse of hundreds of old buildings across dozens of tiny communities playing host to far more people than usual because of the summer holidays.

Many of the survivors, who are now living in tents, were carrying plastic bags containing the few possessions they grabbed before fleeing their homes in terror: clothes, ID documents, phones and wallets.

Quake experts estimate that the cost of the short-term rescue effort and mid- to longer-term reconstruction could exceed one billion euros.

There are also fears of a negative impact on an already-stagnating Italian economy, with tourism - which accounts for four percent of GDP - certain to take a hit.

Analysts noted however that the disaster could help Mr Renzi get clearance for reconstruction spending to be excluded from EU calculations of the country's compliance with budget rules.

Mr Renzi's government and local authorities are now facing questions as to why there were so many deaths in a sparsely-populated area so soon after a 2009 earthquake in the nearby city of L'Aquila left 300 people dead.

That disaster, just 50 kilometres (30 miles) to the south, underscored the region's vulnerability to seismic events - but preparations for a fresh quake have been exposed as inadequate.

"Italy should have a plan that is not just limited to the management of emergency situations," Mr Renzi said.

He said that proofing centuries-old buildings against the risk of collapse in the event of a quake would be difficult but that more could be done.