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With the deep, clear tolling of a bronze bell, a flight of doves into the blue-gray sky and a moment of tearful silence, tens of thousands of people marked the moment 50 years ago that the atomic bomb exploded above Hiroshima.

"Memory is where the past and future meet," Hiroshima Mayor Takahashi Hiraoka said in a declaration appealing for peace and the abolition of nuclear arms. "So long as such weapons exist, it is inevitable that the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will be repeated."On a morning whose steamy heat recalled the day the bomb fell, an estimated 50,000 solemn mourners milled through the sprawling park built near ground zero - the center of the blast - making offerings of chrysanthemums and incense. Shinto priests in white silk robes and saffron-clothed Buddhist monks intoned chants and beat prayer drums.

Standing rank upon rank, schoolchildren in uniform, women in subdued kimonos and men in ties and short shirt sleeves against the heat bowed deeply before the arch-shaped monument enshrining the dead, with the eternal flame to the victims flickering in the background.

The crowd fell silent at 8:15 a.m., the moment of the explosion. Only the cooing of doves, the bell's tolling and the buzz of cicadas broke the hush.

Nearly half of Hiroshima's wartime population - 140,000 people, plus or minus 10,000 according to the city's own estimate - died outright or of bomb-related causes in the six months after the bomb was dropped.

In the few fatal seconds following the explosion, human beings were vaporized where they stood or suffered agonizing flash burns that ripped skin from bone. Buildings were blasted from their foundations and streetcars blown off their tracks.

In what had been a thriving business district, a huge firestorm erupted. The rivers were clogged with corpses. The horribly injured died crying for water.

Mourning the dead, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama laid a wreath of yellow chrysanthemums and pressed his government's opposition to nuclear testing.

"As the only country in the history of humankind to experience the devastation of atomic bombing, Japan has held a firm determination that the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki must never happen again," he told the crowd.

Anti-nuclear activists from around the world converged on Hiroshima for the anniversary, with harsh criticism directed at France, which has announced plans to resume nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific next month. Japan and other nations have urged Paris to call off the tests, and those calls were repeated Sunday.

"We call for an immediate and comprehensive test ban and the establishment of a new nuclear-free zone in the Asia-Pacific," the mayor said in his declaration.

For some, the passing of half a century marks a catharsis.

"I come here every year, but I feel a bit different this year," said 59-year-old Hiroshima native Toru Sukita, whose older brother, a junior-high student, died in the blast.

"We never found out exactly what happened to him, but we believe he died in this river here," he said, pointing to the river that runs through Peace Park.

"I prefer not to look back," Sukita added. "That's not why I came here - I came to force myself to think about the present and the future."

The Japanese government has spent much of the year arguing over whether Japan was an aggressor in World War II or fought in self-defense, and over the years, many Japanese have tried to forget or justify the war of aggression that preceded the bombing and led to the deaths of millions across Asia.

This year, however, Mayor Hiraoka - a native of Hiroshima who was working in a military chemical factory in North Korea when the bomb fell - has emphasized the importance of putting Hiroshima in historical context.

He has apologized to the Asian countries that Japan overran during the war and urged his countrymen to face up to the realities of the past. But the mayor, like most Japanese, strongly contends that the United States' use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was unjustified.

Japan surrendered unconditionally nine days after the bombing of Hiroshima and six days after the bombing of Nagasaki, and the U.S. government has maintained that the atomic attacks staved off what would have been a bloody land invasion of Japan.

Possibly to avoid an embarrassing rejection, no official representative of the United States was invited to Sunday's ceremony. A delegate from Honolulu, however, was attending because of the Ha-wai-ian capital's sister-city ties with Hiroshima.

U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, in remarks delivered by envoy Joseph Verner Reed, paid tribute to the city's role as a symbol of peace.

"In Hiroshima, hope has succeeded hate, determination despair," he said. The secretary-general also hailed progress toward a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty.

Masataka Kawachi, 66, who lost his family in the bombing, said the calm and peacefulness of this Sunday reminded him of the hours before the bomb fell.

"It happened on a day just like this one," he said, fingering a Buddhist rosary. "We came here to pray."