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Myanmar officials blame electrical problems for mosque fire

April 02, 2013|By Emily Alpert
  • Women cry during burials of the victims of a mosque fire on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar.
Women cry during burials of the victims of a mosque fire on the outskirts… (Gemunu Amarasinghe / Associated…)

Electrical problems were to blame for a fire that reportedly killed 13 children at a mosque and religious school in Myanmar, authorities said Tuesday, even as the blaze stirred up suspicions of an attack on Muslims.

Yangon regional fire chief Kyi Win told Eleven Media that the children were trapped in the burning building, unable to escape through windows blocked with iron bars. Scores rushed out to safety when firefighters opened the doors, the fire chief said, but others unable to flee were found dead upstairs.

Government officials told reporters in Myanmar that the religious compound was set ablaze by an electrical short circuit, not torched by "outsiders" -- a suspicion stoked by recent fatal clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in the country.

Last month, mobs burned down mosques and killed dozens of people as riots erupted in the central city of Meiktila. Eight hundred and twenty eight buildings were destroyed in Meiktila, most of them homes, Human Rights Watch said Monday.

As the violence infected other towns, the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said more than 12,000 people were displaced by the bloodshed. The attacks left the country on edge and spurred Muslims to close shops as far away as Yangon.

After the blaze Tuesday, several people told news outlets, including the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Irrawaddy magazine, that they smelled diesel fuel or saw cloth soaked in it at the charred building. Yangon officials told reporters that allegations of arson were an attempt to shift blame for negligence on the part of those responsible for the children.

"There was a lot of opportunity to save them if it had not been for the slow decision-making process and response from the mosque supervisors," Yangon Police Chief Win Naing said Tuesday, the Democratic Voice of Burma reported. The head of the mosque and a teacher are being investigated for possible negligence, police told the Associated Press.

The dispute over the deadly fire comes as the government has faced sharp criticism for its handling of the attacks in Meiktila and elsewhere.

Despite pledges to stop the violence, "the government has simply not done enough to address the spread of discrimination and prejudice against Muslim communities across the country, and to tackle the organized and coordinated mobs that are inciting hatred and violently attacking Muslim communities," U.N. special rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana said last week.

Some charge officials with aiding the attacks: In eruptions of sectarian violence in Rakhine state last year, Myanmar police stood idle during attacks or joined Buddhist mobs in assaulting Muslim villages, Human Rights Watch said. Analysts warn that the ethnic unrest could undermine reform in Myanmar, which has taken gradual steps toward democracy.

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