300 as fire sweeps through crowded Paraguayan shopping complex

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Fire roared through a supermarket on the outskirts of the Paraguayan capital Asuncion yesterday, killing as many as people and injuring dozens more.

Fire roared through a supermarket on the outskirts of the Paraguayan capital Asuncion yesterday, killing as manay as 300 people and injuring dozens more.

The fire broke out at the Ycua Bolanos supermarket while it was crowded with Sunday midday shoppers. Firefighters at the scene said the accidental explosion of gas canisters in a kitchen in the supermarket was the likely cause of the blaze.

"Firefighters are taking out more bodies, but the place is very dark and there are gas leaks that make it very dangerous work," the Paraguayan police chief, Humberto Nunez, said.

In chaotic scenes, rescuers carried bodies, some black from burns and smoke, out of the supermarket in their arms.

Some of the charred bodies were found inside the supermarket hugging each other, including a woman with a small child in her arms, a firefighter told local radio. Others were burned alive in their cars as the blaze swept though a parking lot underneath the supermarket, local television reported.

One woman wept outside the supermarket, waiting for news of her missing 14-year-old son. "I need information on my son. He's not in any of the hospitals I've contacted," she said.

A local discotheque opposite the supermarket was being used as a makeshift morgue.

The Paraguayan President, Nicanor Duarte visited the scene. "This is a moment of great anguish," Mr Duarte said. "I've come here to provide support to the injured and the families of the deceased."

Television footage showed several levels of the multi-level supermarket covered in soot, including a lower-level parking garage. The supermarket is part of a shopping complex located in an Asuncion suburb.

Orlando Fiorotto, the Interior Minister, ordered off-duty police and firefighters to the scene and urged hospitals to prepare for the injured.

Julio Cesar Velazquez, the Public Health Minister, told reporters: "I have never seen a disaster like this. The firefighters were taking out, as best as they could, the bodies, the injured and people suffering from smoke inhalation. It's horrible."

A metropolitan area police chief, Aristides Cabral, said an explosion was heard before the fire swept through the building. "There was an explosion inside and the heat forced the bottom floor supporting the basement to give way crushing dozens of people," he said.

Francisco Barrios, who was shopping in the complex but managed to get out after the fire broke out, described the confusion as people rushed for the exit. "There were sparks as if fireworks were going off. The store quickly caught fire and filled with smoke, triggering total confusion," he said sobbing. "I lost my wife and kids as I rushed to get out. Now I'm desperately trying to find them."