Myanmar launches probe into deadly school fire

Muslims prepare to pray around the coffins of the victims of a fire during the funeral at Yaeway cemetery in Yangon April 2, 2013. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

YANGON: Myanmar has launched an official inquiry into a blaze at a Muslim school that killed 13 boys, state media said Wednesday, as authorities sought to dismiss fears the fire was linked to religious unrest.

A seven-member commission is to set up a "probe into the death of the young boys" in the Yangon mosque complex, according to the English-language New Light of Myanmar, which said the group would present its findings by Friday.

The blaze early Tuesday spread fears among local Muslims that their community may have been targeted following a spate of Buddhist-Muslim killings and arson that has spread across central Myanmar in recent weeks.

But authorities have insisted the incident was a tragic accident, blaming an electrical fault and the inadequate response of two teachers who were sleeping at the school when the fire broke out.

"We have handed over evidence to the commission already and they will continue to investigate the case. It should be easy for them because we have found the cause," Myint Aye, head of local district police, told AFP.

He said one of the teachers was being questioned in custody, while police were still searching for the other man.

State media accused the detained man of falsely spreading rumours that the fire was started deliberately.

Around 70 children, some orphans, were sleeping in dormitories at the school when the fire broke out under the stairs, according to authorities who said the victims died of suffocation when they were unable to escape because of bars on the windows.

Police and soldiers patrolled near the scorched blue mosque and religious school soon after the fire amid fears that the incident could stoke further religious tensions in the country.

Police officers remained deployed in front of the mosque and on nearby streets Wednesday but the area appeared calm, according to an AFP reporter.

Hundreds of mourners packed a Muslim cemetery in a northern suburb of the city to bury the bodies on Tuesday afternoon, with many in the crowd expressing fears the fire had been started deliberately.

But local Muslim leader Ye Naung Thein, who initially raised concerns that the fire may have been deliberate, said he believed "one hundred percent" the local authorities' assertion that the blaze was an accident.

"We accept the commission," he told AFP on behalf of his Myanmar Mawlwy federation, one of several influential Muslim groups in Myanmar.

"Everything is reasonable and I do not think there was an external cause. This is because of the weakness of the mosque teachers in responding quickly enough to the alarm," he said.





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