ASCOLI PICENO: Italy on Saturday bid a tearful farewell to dozens of those who died in the earthquake as the nation mourned the victims of a disaster that claimed nearly 300 lives.
President Sergio Mattarella, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and other leaders were among hundreds of mourners at a sports hall in Ascoli Piceno, capital of the central Marche region.
The hall had been temporarily converted into a place of worship for the funeral of most of the people who perished in the villages of Arquata del Tronto and Pescara del Tronto in the region's mountainous interior.
Hundreds more stood silently outside, the sombre proceedings of the mass relayed to them by loudspeaker, three days after the deadly pre-dawn quake which killed 291 people according to the latest count.
Relatives of the dead sat alongside flower-covered coffins, some draping themselves across them and sobbing inconsolably.
Others hugged each other as Giovanni D'Ercole, the bishop of Ascoli, implored them not to lose faith.
"Don't be afraid to scream your suffering, but do not lose courage," he said.
"Together we will rebuild our houses and churches, together, above all, we will give life back to our communities... the village bells will ring once more."
'Goodbye little one'
Among the coffins was a small, white casket for nine-year-old Giulia, whose body protected her younger sister, Giorgia, 5, long enough for her to be pulled from the rubble virtually unscathed.
Giorgia was one of the last survivors to be rescued and there have been no reports of anyone else being found alive since late Wednesday.
On Giulia's coffin a little note had been left: "Ciao little one. Sorry that we arrived too late." It had apparently been written by one of the firemen who rescued Giorgia.
Away from the TV cameras, the tiny hamlet of San Benedetto, near Amatrice, buried one of its sons, 13-year-old Sergio Giustiniani.
The strains of three exhausting days were apparent as a woman screamed at a man who had been stopped by police, presuming he was a thief.
"I have lost everything and they come to rob us," she cried as a hearse pulled up behind her to collect a corpse from a neighbouring house.
More bodies found
"We will not abandon you," Italy's president told the mourners after earlier paying tributed to the "extraordinary effort" of more than 4,000 rescuers and volunteers during a brief visit to Amatrice, the small mountain town hit hardest by the quake.
And former premier Silvio Berlusconi also sent his condolences. "There are no words, only grief, solidarity, prayer," he said in a statement.
Some 230 of the quake's 291 confirmed victims were buried under tonnes of collapsed masonry in Amatrice's devastated centre.
Three more bodies were plucked from the town's Hotel Roma overnight and there are fears yet more bodies will be recovered. An elderly man from Arquata died in hospital, taking the toll in that area to 50.
Emergency services are confident they have accounted for everyone in the smaller outlying hamlets to the north of Amatrice -- some of which have been so badly damaged there are doubts as to whether they will ever be inhabited again.
Many victims were from the Rome area, where former inhabitants of the mountains have moved for work, returning to family homes only at the height of summer.
At least 16 foreigners died: 10 Romanians, three Britons and one each from Canada, El Salvador and Spain.
Sixteen Romanians are unaccounted for, the foreign ministry in Bucharest said Saturday.
The bells of the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, which was destroyed in a double earthquake in September 1997 and reopened two years later, rang out in memory of the victims.
The government has pledged to support immediate reconstruction.
But the clear-up operation has been hampered by powerful aftershocks -- more than 1,300 since Wednesday -- which have closed winding mountain roads, damaged key bridges and made life dangerous for exhausted emergency services.
Renzi has declared a state of emergency for the regions affected, releasing an initial tranche of 50 million euros ($56 million) in emergency aid.
The total rebuilding operation is forecast to cost over a billion euros.
Another major commemoration service has been scheduled for Wednesday in Amatrice.
Once that is over, the government and local authorities will face intense scrutiny over why so many people died, just seven years after an earthquake in the nearby city of L'Aquila left more than 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 partial at best.