Nineteen people were killed by a fire that destroyed an upmarket shopping centre in the Qatari capital, Doha, yesterday, with 13 children among the dead.
The blaze at the Villaggio mall has raised serious questions about the country's building regulations as it prepares to construct facilities for the football World Cup in 2022.
None of the dead was Qatari, according to reports, with the victims instead thought to be tourists and members of the Gulf nation's large population of European expatriates, including four from Spain and one from France. A number of the children died inside the mall's crèche, with attempts to rescue them defeated by the severity of the flames.
"We tried to get to the children area but the extremely high heat stood in our way," Brigadier Hamad al-Duhaimi of the Qatari civil defence told reporters. Qatar's minister of state for interior affairs, Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani, added: "We tried our best, but when we got there, the children were trapped inside. We are very sorry for what happened. We tried as much as we could to save these people."
The cause of the fire, which sent black smoke rising above firefighters on the roof trying to tackle the blaze, was not clear with investigations under way.
However, the mother of a two-year-old boy who died told Reuters that there did not seem to be "any fire alarms or sprinklers". The Interior Ministry admitted that the rescue efforts had been hampered by malfunctioning sprinkler systems.
The Villaggio opened in 2006, aping the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas by offering gondola rides on indoor canals lined with shops designed to look like Italian boutiques, beneath a ceiling painted to look like the sky. It featured a theme park, an ice-skating rink and a cinema.
The fact such a new attraction could be engulfed so dramatically led Sheikh Abdullah to say a committee would be established to monitor building-safety standards, but he maintained that all constructions in the country abide by safety requirements.