13 children die in fire at Muslim school in Burma

Tuesday 02 April 2013 22.38
Police stand guard outside the school where at least 13 children died
Police stand guard outside the school where at least 13 children died

At least 13 children have died in a fire at a mosque in Burma’s largest city, Rangoon.

Authorities have blamed the blaze on an accidental electrical short.

Security forces and three trucks of riot police blocked off roads around the building compound in Rangoon, which encompasses a mosque, a school and a dormitory.

There were no reports of violence, but around 200 Muslim residents gathered nearby, many expressing suspicions the fire had been set intentionally.

Burma, also known as 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.

The violence, which has largely targeted Muslims, 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 mosque compound in eastern Rangoon, and most escaped safely by running out of a door police knocked open.

Other doors appeared to have been locked, but it was not immediately clear why.

Security bars blocked most of the building's windows, which were marked by black smoke in the late morning, hours after firefighters put out the flames.

The building had burned from the inside.

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 of them were sleeping in a small loft on the first floor and were trapped when the ladder that led to the loft caught fire. Three boys jumped to safety, he said, and the rest died.

Thet Lwin, the policeman who was at the scene before dawn, said the fire was triggered by an electrical short "and not due to any criminal activity".

Angry Muslims dispute that claim.

The policeman also appealed to journalists to help. "We need the media's support in Rangoon. Please don't report that there is conflict in Rangoon. We're here to stop conflict," he said.

The recent upsurge in sectarian unrest in Burma 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 the violence could threaten the reform process.

Hundreds of people were killed last year and more than 100,000 made homeless in sectarian violence in western Burma.

Keywords: burma