Store owners arrested over claims shoppers were prevented from escaping deadly fire

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The Independent US

As Paraguay mourns the hundreds of people who died in Sunday's shopping centre fire, police are investigating claims that security guards locked the doors of the supermarket in a bid to prevent looting ­ and trapped customers inside the building.

As Paraguay mourns the hundreds of people who died in Sunday's shopping centre fire, police are investigating claims that security guards locked the doors of the supermarket in a bid to prevent looting ­ and trapped customers inside the building.

Survivors of the blaze told officials that their escape from the blaze had been slowed down because the exits had been deliberately shut by staff. Humberto Nunez, Paraguay's police chief, said: "There are several witnesses who saw how they shut the doors to the supermarket and we also confirmed that the emergency exit was soldered."

"They closed the door in our faces," claimed one survivor. Another, Celeste Silva Hermosa, said she had tried to get out but "the door was closed".

Three of the store's owners and three security guards have been taken into police custody for questioning over the reports. But one of the owners, Juan Pio Paiva, angrily denied that exits had been deliberately blocked.

"The security guards confirmed that the doors weren't closed by them," he said, reading from a statement in which he "lamented" the disaster and emphasised that the building met safety standards. "The company has insurance against vandalism. It does not make sense in a fire of this magnitude for security guards to close the doors and stay inside."

At least 318 people died in the fire, which spread quickly through the crowded multi-level Ycua Bolanos supermarket on the outskirts of the capital, Asuncion. The Health Ministry said a further 276 people were injured, 70 of who are in intensive care suffering from critical burns or breathing problems.

Paraguay, one of South America's poorest countries, has a health service ill-equipped for disasters on this scale. Hospitals were overwhelmed yesterday by the influx of patients. "This event revealed how insufficient we are in human resources and infrastructure to handle a catastrophe," the newspaper Ultima Hora said in its editorial.

Neighbouring Argentina has sent a Hercules transport plane loaded with medication and bandages, while Spain announced yesterday it would transport $121,000 (£66,000) worth of emergency aid to Asuncion.

Meanwhile, rescue workers and firemen continued their search for survivors in the smouldering wreckage, trying to work their way further into the remains of a car park which was crushed when the floor above collapsed. The head of a volunteer fire brigade, Captain David Rojas, said identification of many of the remains would be a slow process. "We are finding badly mutilated bodies, in some areas only torn limbs," he said.

The blaze, the country's worst disaster in more than half a century, is thought to have started when a gas canister exploded in the food section of the supermarket.

President Nicanor Duarte Frutos yesterday assured the public that he would push for a detailed investigation into the causes of the tragedy "so that those responsible are punished with the full force of the law". He also announced three days of national mourning. Official appointments and school classes were cancelled in Asuncion, while hundreds of people rushed to hospitals and clinics to give blood.

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