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30 dead in Belarus mental hospital fire
( 2003-10-13 13:40) (Agencies)

A fire believed to have been set by a psychiatric patient engulfed a Belarusian mental hospital Sunday, killing 30 patients and reducing much of the century-old wooden building to ash.

One of the 62 patients who lived at the hospital in the village of Randilovshchina, some 150 miles west of the capital, Minsk, was missing. Emergency officials said they did not know whether he ran away or died in the pre-dawn blaze.

Another 31 patients had minor injuries, officials said. No hospital staff were in the building when the fire started.

A spokeswoman for President Alexander Lukashenko, Natalya Petkevich, said the fire was set by a patient who had tried to burn down the building twice before. The patient was among those killed.

But Igor Zarembo, a duty officer at the Emergency Situations Ministry, said investigators were also considering a second possibility that the fire resulted from carelessness on the part of the staff.

A nurse and an orderly were sleeping in a separate building on hospital grounds when the fire broke out, Zarembo said. When they awoke to screams and the smell of smoke, they apparently panicked and tried to put out the fire and rescue patients themselves, instead of immediately calling for help.

"As a result of such poorly thought-out actions, by the time emergency personnel arrived, one of the hospital's wings was completely engulfed in flames and the roof and ceiling had collapsed," Emergency Situations Minister Valery Astapov told Belarusian television.

The patients were men and women aged 30 to 60, deemed unable to function independently and whose relatives refused to care for them. They all lived in the one-story wooden building, constructed in 1905 with locked doors and bars on the windows, Zarembo said. He said most likely the doors of the patients' rooms were also locked.

The nurse and the orderly unlocked all the doors they could, but some rooms were already cut off by flames, Zarembo said. The building was divided into two wings separated by a stone wall, and the wing where the fire began was destroyed, he said. Damage was less severe in the other half.

Human rights activists said the fire was a result of the dismal state of Belarus' psychiatric hospitals, which are poorly funded and largely unreformed since the Soviet era.

"These are Godforsaken places that are closed to public monitoring," said Garry Poganyailo, deputy chairman of the Belarusian Helsinki Group, a leading human rights organization.

He said that even if the fire was set by a patient "it was the fault of the staff, who failed to fulfill their direct duties and watch the patients."

Reached by telephone, officials at the hospital refused to comment.

The fire occurred at 5 a.m., the Emergency Situations Ministry said, but officials in this often-secretive country did not release any information until about 12 hours later.

The government said it had ordered an investigation.

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