YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Police in Myanmar said they were investigating the head of a mosque and a Muslim teacher for possible negligence after a pre-dawn fire swept a religious dormitory Tuesday, killing 13 children in a blaze that stoked sectarian tensions the country's main city.
Authorities blamed the fire on an electrical short circuit and deployed riot police to maintain calm. But some Muslims remained suspicious, saying it was set intentionally.
Myanmar has been on edge after sectarian unrest between Buddhists and Muslims erupted in the central city of Meikhtila in March, killing dozens of people and displacing more than 12,000, mostly Muslims. The violence has since spread to several other towns where extremist Buddhist mobs have torched or ransacked mosques and Muslim-owned property.
Police officer Thet Lwin said about 75 children lived in the torched compound in eastern Yangon — which encompasses a mosque, a school and a dormitory — and most were able to escape by running out of a door rescue workers knocked open. Security bars blocked most of the building's windows, which were stained by black smoke hours after firefighters put out the flames.
Mosque member Soe Myint said most of the children, who had been sent to the religious boarding school by their parents, were sleeping on the ground floor when the blaze began and were able to flee.
But 16 were sleeping in a small loft and were trapped when the stairs to it caught fire. Three boys jumped to safety and the rest died, he said.
Soe Myint, who said he helped carry the dead out of the mosque, said he did not believe the fire was caused by a short circuit and urged authorities to launch a thorough investigation.
"The whole mosque smelled of diesel," he said. "We don't use diesel at the school."
Security forces and three trucks of riot police blocked off roads around the scarred building in Yangon as a crowd of 200 onlookers, mostly Muslims, gathered.
Speaking in the immediately hours after the blaze, Thet Lwin, the policeman, said it was caused by an electrical short circuit "and not due to any criminal activity."
Every time he mentioned the word "electrical short," though, angry Muslims shouted and began banging on vehicles with their fists.
He also appealed to journalists for help. "We need the media's support in Yangon. Please don't report that there is conflict in Yangon. We're here to stop conflict," he said.
Yangon Police Chief Win Naing said authorities were investigating the head of the mosque and a teacher, but no arrests had been made. "As the two people in charge, they are responsible for this and we have to take action against them," he said.
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