Qatar orders arrests after deadly mall fire

Associated Press Modified: May 29, 2012 at 11:46 pm •  Published: May 29, 2012
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DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Qatar issued arrest orders for the owner of a fire-ravaged mall and four others as investigations widened Wednesday into possible safety lapses during a blaze that killed 19 people, including 13 children at a daycare center catering to the Gulf nation's large expatriate community.

The official Qatar News Agency said Attorney General Ali bin Feitais al-Marri also ordered the detention of the owner of the child care facility where the children and four workers died in Monday's fire at the Gulf nation's biggest mall. The others facing arrest are mall officials, including the director of security.

Sprinkler systems malfunctioned at the Villaggio complex and rescue crews struggled without blueprints of the vast complex, bringing calls for sweeping safety and licensing reviews in one of the world's fastest-growing countries. Two firefighters also were killed.

It was not immediately clear whether charges would be filed.

Investigators, meanwhile, are carrying out extensive probes through the fire-damaged sections of the mall, but authorities have not announced the cause of the fire. Findings from the state-ordered inquest are expected within a week.

The tragedy also is likely to push authorities across the Gulf to further examine fire safety rules in a region where the drive to build fast and big has brought concerns about the quality of emergency planning.

Rescue crews in Qatar's capital Doha had to hack through the roof of the mammoth Villaggio mall to reach the child care facility, where the victims included 2-year-old New Zealand triplets and three Spanish siblings.

"What happened is similar to murder because of the lack of safety measures in such complexes," wrote Saleh al-Kuwari, editor of the Al Raya newspaper in Doha.

An editorial in the newspaper Al Arab urged officials around the Gulf to consider creating special firefighting and civil defense units for the energy-rich region's huge malls. The Villaggio includes an ice skating rink, theme park, movie theater and indoor Venice-style gondola rides.

"Safety requirements must be stressed," said the editorial. "They also need regular review."

Qatar's Interior Ministry said the mall's sprinkler system malfunctioned, and rescue efforts were hampered by a lack of floor plans. Other Gulf nations also have confronted concerns about whether public safety planning can keep pace with the construction boom.

In November, firefighters in Sharjah, north of Dubai, struggled to battle a blaze in a 25-story tower without equipment to reach the flames. The United Arab Emirates is considering bans on flammable panels in high-rise buildings after more recent back-to-back tower fires.

An Al Arab journalist, Marzouki Faisal, reported that the route to the Villaggio daycare center wound through a "maze" of narrow halls and stairways. He and others questioned the rules that allow childcare sites inside commercial buildings.