Teenage girls admit they started fatal Paris flat fire

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An argument between teenage girls appeared to be the motive for an arson attack on an apartment block in the suburbs of Paris which killed 16 people, officials said.

Four girls were to appear before a judge today in connection with the fire in L'Hay-les-Roses which killed 13 adults and three children in the early hours of Sunday. At least three of the teenagers confessed to starting the blaze that began in the lobby mailroom. They had lit it to settle scores with a former friend, the officials said.

"This is really the kind of event that leaves you flabbergasted," the town's Mayor, Patrick Seve, told France-Inter radio. "I'm speechless, revolted," he said, adding: "We now see it was really more a problem of incivility than of criminal acts."

The fire was the third deadly blaze in the Paris area in nine days, killing a total of at least 64 people. The toll of Sunday's fire rose to 16 after a man died in hospital. Five people were being treated for serious injuries. Two Italians, a mother and daughter, were among the dead. The suspects were aged 15, 16, 17 and 18. A fifth girl taken in for questioning was later released.

The fire was believed to have raged up a stairwell and climbed at least three floors in the 19-storey building. Some residents jumped from windows.

Police were investigating whether arsonists started the fire on 26 August which killed 14 African children and three adults in a run-down apartment building. Three days later, another fire killed seven in a building used by squatters.

The Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, suggested on French television that copycats might be at work. "Each time there is a news story, sometimes that gives ideas to people who then turn into criminals," M. Sarkozy said. He promised severe punishment for anyone who was found guilty of arson.