30 die in hospital blaze 'started by mental patient'

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A fire believed to have been started by a patient engulfed a Belarussian psychiatric hospital yesterday, killing 30 inmates and reducing much of the building to ash.

One of the 62 patients who lived at the hospital in the village of Randilovshchina, about 150 miles west of the capital, Minsk, could not be traced. Emergency officials said they did not know whether he ran away or died in the pre-dawn blaze.

Another 31 patients received minor injuries, officials said. No hospital staff were in the building, which was nearly 100 years old, at the time of the fire.

A spokeswoman for President Alexander Lukashenko said the fire was started by a patient who was known to be a pyromaniac and had tried to burn down the building on two previous occasions. But a spokesman for the Emergency Situations Ministry, Igor Zarembo, said investigators were also considering a second possibility - that the fire resulted from carelessness on the part of the staff. He said officials had ruled out the possibility of an electrical fire.

A nurse and an orderly were sleeping in a separate building in the hospital grounds when the fire started, Mr Zarembo said. When they awoke to screams and the smell of smoke, they apparently panicked and tried to extinguish the flames and rescue the patients themselves, instead of immediately contacting authorities.

Valery Astapov, the Emergency Situations Minister, told Belarussian television: "As a result of such poorly thought-out actions, by the time emergency personnel arrived one of the hospital's wings was completely engulfed in flames and the roof and ceiling had collapsed."

The patients, men and women aged 30 to 60 who were deemed unable to function independently and whose relatives refused to take care of them, lived in a one-storey wooden building constructed in 1905 with locked doors and bars on the windows, Mr Zarembo said. He said the doors of the patients' rooms were probably locked.

The nurse and the orderly unlocked all of the doors they could, but some were already cut off by flames, Mr Zarembo said. The building was divided into two wings separated by a stone wall, and the wing where the fire began was destroyed, he said. Damage was less severe in the other half.

The presidential spokes-woman said the patient believed to have started the fire was killed.Mr Lukashenko had ordered Prosecutor General Viktor Sheiman and the state secretary of the Belarussian Security Council, Gennady Nevyglas, to conduct a thorough investigation.

Human rights activists said the fire was a result of the dismal state of Belarus's psychiatric hospitals, which are poorly funded and largely unreformed since the Soviet era. Garry Poganyailo, deputy chairman of the Belarussian Helsinki Group, said: "These are godforsaken places that are closed to public monitoring."