Police waiting to question father injured in blaze that killed wife and daughters

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Police waiting to interview a man whose wife and four daughters died yesterday in a house fire say they are treating the inquiry as a murder investigation. They say the blaze, which killed the victims as they slept upstairs, was started with inflammable substances and was almost certainly set by someone inside the house, which had been locked from the inside.

Mohammed Riaz, 49, a plastics factory worker, was the sole survivor after he was rescued by firefighters from the end-of-terrace house in Accrington, Lancashire. He remains critically ill at the burns unit at Wythenshawe Hospital in Manchester and will be questioned by police officers as soon as his condition allows.

Mr and Mrs Riaz had visited their seriously ill teenage son in hospital on Tuesday and just hours before the blaze they had thrown a Halloween party at their home. The fire broke out shortly before 2am.

Firefighters arrived within two minutes of the alarm being raised to find the property well ablaze.

Mr Riaz's wife, Caneze, 39, a school governor and racial equality campaigner, was killed along with her four daughters, Sayrah, 16, Sophia, 15, Alicia, 10, and Hannah, three. The couple's only son, Adam, 17, was told of the tragedy yesterday in the Manchester hospital where he is being treated for leukaemia.

Lancashire police said an inflammable substance had been used to start the blaze at various points around the house and confirmed they were treating the deaths as murder.

"Already it's clear there were several seats of fire at the house and accelerants have been used. The cause of the fire is therefore deliberate," said Detective Superintendent Mick Gradwell, who is leading the inquiry. "The house was secure and was locked from the inside. Early indications are that whoever set the fire and created what we assume are other suspicious activities which I cannot go into at this stage, did not leave the premises.

"The main line of inquiry is to speak to someone in the house but the man in hospital is not in a position to talk."

Neighbours told of their shock at the tragedy. "They were a very loving family and we loved them to bits," said Maryan Jahanzeb, 26. "They were a very close family. The kids had the odd sister fights but were very close and loved each other very much."

Zeenat Begum, 24, who had looked after the younger children at their home just hours before the blaze, said of Mrs Riaz: "She was like my left arm, she was my best friend. It just doesn't seem real. I only spoke to her a matter of hours before the fire. I was going to bring some tea round for all the family, who had been visiting hospital all day. But she said, it's OK I'll just see you in the morning. But we never did."

Chief Supt David Mallaby said: "Rarely, if ever, have I come across a tragedy of this nature, particularly when one considers the extent to which it may be a deliberate event. I have spoken to people and neighbours and the sense of loss, tragedy and disbelief is quite staggering. The family played an active, positive and major role in the local community life in a very positive sense, all members of the community are particularly shocked and stunned."

Mrs Riaz was well known locally for her youth work and role in the East Lancashire Together organisation, which tackles racism.

She had been a leading figure in an anti-racism programme in football known as Kick It Out, and spread her message to several local clubs, including Blackburn Rovers, Burnley and Accrington Stanley.