A massive fire tore through an overcrowded prison in Burundi before dawn on Tuesday, killing dozens of inmates and seriously injuring many more, the country’s vice president said.
Many prisoners were still asleep when the blaze took hold in a penitentiary in Burundi’s political capital Gitega, witnesses said. Much of the facility was destroyed.
Vice President Prosper Bazombanza, who visited the scene of the tragedy with several ministers, told reporters that 38 people were killed and 69 seriously hurt.
The blaze broke out at about 4:00 am (0200 GMT) and grim images posted on social media showed huge flames engulfing the prison, and bodies of men lying on the floor.
“We started shouting that we were going to be burned alive when we saw the flames rising very high, but the police refused to open the doors of our quarters, saying ‘these are the orders we have received’,” one inmate reached by phone told AFP.
“I don’t know how I escaped, but there are prisoners who were burned completely,” he said.
The interior ministry said on Twitter that the disaster was caused by an electrical short-circuit at the nearly century-old prison.
A police source said the emergency services were late to the scene, with the first fire truck arriving two hours after the start of the blaze.
Victims with the most serious burns were taken to hospital, some ferried in police pick-up trucks, while others with milder cases were treated at the scene, witnesses said.
The fire was later brought under control, but many parts of the site were left in charred ruins behind a stone wall showing the date of construction in 1926, when Burundi was a Belgian colony.
A large contingent of police and soldiers surrounded the site and prevented journalists from approaching or taking pictures until the arrival of the ministers.
Teams from the Red Cross in Burundi were also at the scene to tend to victims.
The facility, the third largest in Burundi, housed a number of political prisoners in a high-security compound, and there was also a women’s wing.
In all, it was home to more than 1,500 inmates at the end of November, according to prison authority figures, far higher than its designed capacity of 400.
The same prison in Gitega, which lies in the heart of the tiny country, was struck by another fire in August, according to the interior ministry, which also blamed an electrical fault.
No casualties were reported from that incident.
Chronic overcrowding is a problem in prisons in Burundi, one of the poorest nations in the world, and inmates often complain about their cramped living conditions and lack of food.
There were a total of 12,878 inmates living in accommodation designed for 4,294, according to November figures, despite a presidential amnesty in March which saw 5,200 prisoners released.
“Sometimes we have gone for up to three days without being given supplies by the prison, and our families cannot help us because since June 2020 we have not been allowed visits under the pretext of protecting us from Covid-19,” one prisoner told AFP.
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