Police hunt arson gang after 15 die in third Paris apartment fire

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The Independent Online

At least 15 people, including three children, were killed in a suspected arson attack on an apartment building housing low-income families in a southern suburb of Paris. Police fear the death toll could rise.

The fire yesterday morning is the third to hit the French capital in just over a week. Seventeen people, mainly African, were killed in a fire on 26 August and three days later, seven immigrants diedin the Marais neighbourhood. Another 24 Africans, who were waiting for a new place to live, were killed in a fire that destroyed the Paris-Opera hotel in April.

Yesterday's firestarted in cluttered letterboxes on the ground floor of an apartment in L'Hay-les-Roses at about 1am and spread through the building. Alain Antonini, a fire brigade spokesman, said: "The people who stayed inside were fine. It's the people who rushed out and ran into temperatures of 300C, smoke and asphyxia, that gave rise to the terrible toll."

Officials suspect that the fire was started deliberately and said they were looking for four young people spotted by witnesses. Three teenage girls were taken into custody.

"The first indications point to a fire caused by a criminal act," Patrick Seve, the mayor of L'Hay-les-Roses, said.

Three children were among the victims and most were killed by smoke and fumes. At least 13 people were injured. One person who had been injured in the fire died a few hours afterwards. A dozen people were "in an extremely delicate situation", a police spokesman said.

Firefighters had the fire in the building of 110 apartments under control in two hours. Michel Cros, a firefighter, told a television interview: "People saw the smoke leaking into their flats from the stairs and were seized by panic. The smoke was very thick, we couldn't see anything."

Unlike the two fires in Paris last week, yesterday's incident did not destroy a squat or housing for immigrants. It happened in a low-cost social apartment building known in France as an HLM.

Up to 10,000 people marched in the French capital on Saturday to protest against the lack of measures taken by the government to find decent housing for families in need. The demonstration went past the squat that burned down last week.

On Friday, about 140 immigrants and asylum-seekers were evacuated from two squats, three days after the French Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, announced that all unsafe buildings must be shut down. Pressure groups are demanding better living conditions and adequate housing for Paris's most vulnerable inhabitants.

About 300,000 families, many of them immigrants, have been waiting for years to be allocated permanent social housing, and are living temporarily in what many say are small and unsafe houses.