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Arson blamed as new Paris fire kills 15
Updated: 2005-09-05 09:34

Fifteen people, including three children, were killed and more than 30 injured in an apartment block fire in a suburb south of Paris -- the third fatal fire to hit the French capital in nine days, reported AFP.

The blaze broke out at around 1:00 am (2300 GMT Saturday) in the hall of an 18-storey highrise containing 110 local authority flats at L'Hay-les-Roses near Orly airport. The casualties -- including 11 who were seriously injured -- were all caused by smoke inhalation.

According to a final official report on casualties, 11 people were seriously injured. Of those killed, three were children about 10 years old, officials said.

A women is evacuated in front of a 18-storey block where a fire swept through a building in the town of L'Hay-les-Roses.
A women is evacuated in front of a 18-storey block where a fire swept through a building in the town of L'Hay-les-Roses. [AFP]
Police said the origin of the fire appeared to be criminal, and later announced that three girls aged between 16 and 18, two of whom lived in the building, were being held for questioning. Police said they did not yet have evidence linking the girls to starting the fire.

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy told French television that the fire was the result of a "criminal act" which needed to be "punished as such."

He rejected suggestions by the local mayor that the blaze was the consequence of an "anti-social act."

Residents told investigators that vandals had been spotted setting light to letter-boxes on the ground floor of the highrise. Low-level arson attacks on cars and property are a regular problem in run-down housing estates that surround many French cities.

Altogether 39 people have been killed in three fires in Paris in little over a week, but authorities were at pains to play down any similarity between the latest disaster and the fires on August 26 and 29 which killed 24 African immigrants in two dilapidated Paris buildings.

"This is a block of flats. It's got nothing to do with the fires in the Paris squats," said fire service spokesman Captain Michel Cros.

Several African families were among the 300 to 400 people living in the high-rise, which is in a working-class neighbourhood with no particular reputation for trouble. At least five or six of the victims were Haitians, according to one survivor.

The blaze sent long flames licking up the outside of the building, while smoke billowed up the stairwell -- fanned by the airflow as residents opened their doors in panic. On a hot night most windows were open.

Rescue workers found victims in the stairwell at the very top of the building, while lower down residents who stayed in their apartments and sealed their doors with material were safe.

"The smoke woke me. My bedroom was full of it. It stuck to the skin, it was suffocating," said Jean, a first floor resident who called the fire brigade. "There were people who wanted to hurl themselves from their windows, but I told them not to -- that the emergency services were coming."

"There was total panic, because we saw the bodies of people we knew. Our neighbours -- a couple and their child, an entire family -- are dead," said Florence Leclerc.

Some 160 firefighters were dispatched to the scene, and the fire was brought under control after two hours. Residents said there were scuffles between local youths and the firefighters. One young woman resident gave birth in an ambulance brought to the scene.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin issued a statement expressing his "condolences ... and the firm support of the state," while Social Cohesion Minister Jean-Louis Borloo left a ruling party conference at La Baule on the Atlantic coast to be at the scene.

The question of safe and affordable housing for immigrants moved to the top of the political agenda after the recent fires, which followed an earlier conflagration in a city centre hotel in April which killed 24 Africans.

Police were working on the theory that one fire, which killed 17 West Africans near Austerlitz station on August 26, may have been set deliberately, but last Monday's at a squat in the fashionable Marais district was almost certainly an accident.

Both of those buildings were run-down condition and overcrowded, and lacked safety equipment. By contrast the apartment bloc at L'Hay-les-Roses appeared to have been properly maintained.

Thousands of protesters marched through Paris on Saturday demanding urgent investment in low-cost housing for immigrants, and condemning the forced evacuation of two Paris squats late last week.

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy ordered the evictions as a safety measure, but the Socialist-controlled city council said no long term alternative accommodation had been found for the 150 residents, many of whom are in France illegally.

He told French television he took full responsibility for the evictions and did not regret them.

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