Pope visits Italian earthquake region, urges 'solid' reconstruction

Pope visits Italian earthquake region, urges 'solid' reconstructionL'Aquila, Italy - In a visit Tuesday to Italy's earthquake-stricken Abruzzo region, Pope Benedict XVI brought words of comfort and appealed for the construction of safer homes and churches. Benedict arrived from Rome by car, with his first stop in the village of Onna, situated near the epicenter of the 6.3-magnitude earthquake that struck on April 6, killing nearly 300 people.

Most of the village's buildings were destroyed in the tremor in which 40 men, women and children - one-tenth of the town's population - died.

"I have come in person to your splendid and wounded land which is experiencing days of great suffering and uncertainty," Benedict told residents at a tent camp, one of dozens that have been set up in Onna and other towns to house the thousands left homeless.

Unseasonally strong winds and heavy rains that in recent weeks have hit much of Italy on Tuesday forced the cancellation of a helicopter flight that was scheduled to take the pontiff to the area which lies some 113 kilometres from Rome.

"I realize that despite the widespread solidarity, there are many daily discomforts, rendered worse by the cold and the rain, for those who have to live outside their homes, in their cars, or in tents," Benedict told Onna's earthquake survivors.

As Benedict stopped to chat to some of those gathered around him, an elderly man reached out to hug and kiss the pontiff. Others, some of them wearing rosary beads round their necks, clasped the pontiff's hands.

Benedict said that like them, he "awaited the re-birth of their land, that must return to be decorated by beautiful and solid houses and churches."

The pontiff also visited L'Aquila, Abruzzo's medieval hilltop regional capital, that was also badly damaged in the earthquake.

There Benedict stood before the ruins of a building which served as a university dormitory and in which seven students were killed.

Prosecutors are investigating whether the structure and other collapsed buildings in and around L'Aquila were constructed in accordance with building regulations for seismic, tremor-prone areas.

"The civil community must seriously examine its conscience, to ensure that the levels of responsibility be shouldered at all times," Benedict said in an address at a police training school that in the aftermath of the earthquake, served as a makeshift morgue.

In L'Aquila, the 82-year-old pontiff also paid his respects to the remains of Celestine V, the 13th-Century pope famous for being the only pope to resign.

Parts of the Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio, the church that housed Celestine's bones, collapsed during the earthquake.(dpa)