Continent is united in silence for victims of the great wave

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The Independent Online

Europe was briefly united in silence yesterday. Tens of millions of people interrupted their busy daily lives, from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterannean, to reflect for three minutes on the tens of thousands killed and millions made homeless by the Asian tsunami.

Europe was briefly united in silence yesterday. Tens of millions of people interrupted their busy daily lives, from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterannean, to reflect for three minutes on the tens of thousands killed and millions made homeless by the Asian tsunami.

Radio and television stations fell silent; buses and trams paused; stock exchanges halted their frantic activity. In France and Belgium children stood by their desks, heads bowed.

Nowhere was the noon three-minute silence more poignant - and more scrupulously observed - than in Sweden, which has paid the highest price in casualties of any country outside the affected area. In Stockholm cars and buses pulled into the kerb. Shoppers on the busy Drottninggatan and Klarabergsgatan in the city centre stood individually or in small groups for several minutes before the silence began.

"Here, everyone knows someone who knows someone who has lost a loved one," said Cecilia Lindstrand, 35, a sales and marketing manager, speaking after the silence ended. "We are a small country of nine million and we have lost so many. If you touch one of us, you touch all of us. All the same, we do not forget the many thousands of people from other countries who have died."

In Brussels traffic came to a standstill as a crowd of about 3,000 was led by the president of the European Parliament, Josep Borrell, Belgium's Finance Minister, Didier Reynders, and several European Commissioners. Bypassers mingled with politicians, Eurocrats and TV crews at Rond Point Schuman, in the heart of the city's European district, as the EU's blue and gold flag flew at half mast outside the European Council building on a cold and overcast day.

Pope John Paul II joined in the commemoration at the Vatican and appealed to everyone to remember the dead and stricken in their prayers.

The silence was requested by the Luxembourg government, which holds the EU presidency for the first six months of this year. Similar, but not universal, three-minute silences, were called after the 11 September terrorist attacks in the US in 2001 and the Madrid train bombings last year.

Many radio and television stations halted programmes. The pop music network MTV Europe cut to a blank screen. Eurosport interrupted coverage of the world luge championships in Germany to show a crowd standing in silence.

At the Frankfurt stock exchange, traders turned their backs to their screens, some with their eyes closed. More than 9,000 tourists, mostly from Europe, are dead or missing following the Boxing Day waves. Sweden alone has 52 known dead and 1,903 people missing, by the latest count.

"We have lost so many - a father, a mother, granddad," said the Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson, speaking of the suffering of all his countrymen. "It is so empty where someone is missing."

Germany has also paid a heavy price. An estimated 1,000 German tourists are missing, feared dead. Twin black, red and gold national flags flew at half mast from Berlin's Reichstag parliament building yesterday and tube trains, buses, stock exchanges and even dustmen stopped working for three minutes. The German parliament interrupted business to allow members to stand in silence and throughout the city church bells rang out as individuals paused quietly on streets and market places. The city's authorities had appealed to all council employees to heed the call. Church services were held in Berlin and in Hamburg several thousand inhabitants gathered in front of the town hall.

Across Italy, workplaces came to a halt and the tricolour flag fluttered at half mast above the presidential Quirinal Palace in Rome as Italians mourned hundreds of their countrymen and women who died while holidaying in Asia.

"Everyone stopped what they were doing out of respect," said a clerk in a branch of the Bank of Spoleto near the hilltown of Assisi. "We heard about this on the radio and of course decided we had to join in. Today is a day of national mourning."

Trading was suspended on the Milan stock exchange, bus and tram services were held up in most Italian cities, judges suspended court trials and flights were suspended at Rome's Leonardo da Vinci Airport.

Spain's winter holiday continues until the weekend and has probably saved many Spanish lives. Spaniards don't usually embark upon their Christmas breaks until after Boxing Day, and no Spaniard is reported killed in the tragedy. But in Madrid drilling stopped on a central building site, a noisy rock band paused and lottery sellers ceased their cries while a dozen or so officials stood solemnly outside the city hall.

With additional reporting by Elizabeth Nash, Tony Paterson, Stephen Castle, John Phillips and agencies

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