Myanmar: Fire kills 13 boys at mosque in Yangon; police blame electrical problem, some fear arson linked to sectarian violence – 020413 1410z

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A fire engulfed a mosque housing orphans in Myanmar’s largest city Tuesday morning, killing at least 13 children in the blaze that police blamed on an electrical short.

Riot police were deployed nearby as some Muslims gathering outside the charred building feared the fire was linked to sectarian violence that has shaken the nation.
Police officer Thet Lwin said the fire was triggered by an overheated inverter “and not due to any criminal activity.”
Myanmar has been on edge after sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims erupted in the central city of Meikhtila in March, killing dozens of people and displacing more than 10,000.
The violence that has largely targeted Muslims has since spread to several other towns where extremist Buddhist mobs have torched or ransacked mosques and Muslim-owned property.
The mosque is in eastern Yangon.
Thet Lwin said about 75 orphans lived there and most escaped safely by running out of a door police knocked open.
It was not immediately clear how the 13 victims became trapped.
Firefighters extinguished the blaze, and the two-story building was charred but intact.
Tuesday, 02 April, 2013 at 03:27 UTC RSOE

News Reports

The Guardian home

Burma mosque fire kills 13 children

Tuesday 2 April 2013 06.45 BST

Police say electrical fault caused blaze at Muslim orphanage as country remains on edge from communal violence

“Thirteen children have died in a fire at an orphanage that operates from a mosque in Yangon, Burma‘s main city. Police quickly put the blaze down to an electrical fault amid tensions over communal violence between Muslims and Buddhists.

The fire started at 3am and trapped 16 children in a small loft, a mosque member said. Three jumped to safety but the others perished.

After the fire security forces and three trucks of riot police blocked off roads around the two-storey compound in eastern Yangon which encompasses a mosque, a Muslim school and a dormitory. There were no reports of violence but around 200 people gathered nearby, some of them Muslims who expressed suspicions the fire had been set intentionally.

Security bars blocked most of the white building’s windows, which were marked by black smoke in the late morning. The building burned from the inside and firefighters had extinguished the flames before dawn.

Police officer Thet Lwin, speaking at the scene, said the fire was triggered by an electrical short “and not due to any criminal activity” but was jeered by the crowd for saying so.

Myanmar has been on edge after sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims erupted in the central city of Meikhtila in March, killing dozens of people and displacing more than 10,000. The violence that has largely targeted Muslims has since spread to several other towns where extremists have torched or ransacked mosques and Muslim-owned property.” – guardian.co.uk

Fire kills 13 children at mosque in tense Myanmar; police blame electrical problem

By Erika Kinetz, The Associated Press April 2, 2013 6:30 AM

“YANGON, Myanmar – Police in Myanmar said they were investigating the head of a mosque and a Muslim teacher for possible negligence after a pre-dawn fire swept a religious dormitory Tuesday, killing 13 children in a blaze that raised new concern over sectarian tensions that have plagued the country since anti-Muslim violence hit the nation’s heartland last month.

Authorities blamed the fire on an electrical short circuit and deployed riot police to maintain calm. But some Muslims remained suspicious, saying it was set intentionally.

Myanmar has been on edge after sectarian unrest between Buddhists and Muslims erupted in the central city of Meikhtila in March, killing dozens of people and displacing more than 12,000, mostly Muslims. The violence has since spread to several other towns where extremist Buddhist mobs have torched or ransacked mosques and Muslim-owned property.

Police officer Thet Lwin said about 75 children lived in the torched compound in eastern Yangon which encompasses a mosque, a school and a dormitory and most were able to escape by running out of a door rescue workers knocked open. Security bars blocked most of the building’s windows, which were stained by black smoke hours after firefighters put out the flames.

Mosque member Soe Myint said most of the children, who had been sent to the religious boarding school by their parents, were sleeping on the ground floor when the blaze began and were able to flee.

But 16 were sleeping in a small loft and were trapped when the stairs to it caught fire. Three boys jumped to safety and the rest died, he said.

Soe Myint, who said he helped carry the dead out of the mosque, said he did not believe the fire was caused by a short circuit and urged authorities to launch a thorough investigation.

“The whole mosque smelled of diesel,” he said. “We don’t use diesel at the school.”

Yangon Division Chief Minister Myint Swe told reporters late Tuesday that police discovered a diesel container underneath a staircase. He said the fuel was normally used to power a mosque generator when the electricity is out.

Hla Myint, whose 15-year-old nephew died in the blaze, waited in a crowd outside Yangon General Hospital, where the dead were taken. Two trucks of riot police were parked nearby.

“We sent him to school only yesterday and today he is dead,” she said. “We are so sad we can’t express it.”

Later Tuesday, several thousand mourners gathered at a cemetery on the outskirts of Yangon for a group burial. The charred bodies of the children were wrapped in white cloth before being lowered into the ground as women wept nearby.

U.S. Ambassador Derek Mitchell issued a statement saying he was “deeply saddened” by the deaths. He also called on the government to “conduct a thorough and transparent investigation into the cause.”

Authorities are investigating the head of the mosque and a teacher, but no arrests had been made, said city Police Chief Win Naing. “As the two people in charge, they are responsible for this and we have to take action against them,” he said.

Win Naing said the fire started in a voltage regulator under the stairs that led to the sleeping loft and that firefighters had to break two locks on the door of the mosque to rescue the survivors. He ruled out arson, saying that three police were guarding the mosque and saw no one approach the building before the fire started.

Speaking in the immediately hours after the blaze, Thet Lwin, the policeman, blamed the fire on an electrical short circuit “and not due to any criminal activity.”

Every time he mentioned the word “electrical short,” though, angry Muslims shouted and began banging on vehicles with their fists.

He also appealed to journalists for help. “We need the media’s support in Yangon. Please don’t report that there is conflict in Yangon. We’re here to stop conflict,” he said.

Security forces and three trucks of riot police blocked off roads around the scarred building in Yangon as a crowd of 200 onlookers, mostly Muslims, gathered.

Zaw Min Htun, a member of a local Muslim youth organization, said he raced to the mosque after hearing it was on fire. He said he entered the charred building and also smelled fuel.

“Muslims are very angry,” he said, calling on authorities to investigate. “The children are innocent. … Someone burned the mosque.”

The recent upsurge in sectarian unrest in Myanmar has cast a shadow over President Thein Sein’s administration as it struggles to make democratic changes after a half century of military rule. His government has warned that the violence could threaten the reform process.

Hundreds of people were killed last year and more than 100,000 made homeless in violence in western Myanmar between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims. On March 20, unrest hit the central town of Meikhtila for several days and then spread to several villages farther south, near the capital, Naypyitaw.

The violence has spooked people in Yangon, where late last month false rumours swirled of mosque burnings and authorities told some shops to close as a precautionary measure. Yangon is about 550 kilometres (340 miles) south of Meikhtila.

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Associated Press photographer Gemunu Amarasinghe contributed to this report.

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