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Fire at Islamic school kills 13 boys in Myanmar

Police stand near a mosque and school dormitory that were damaged by a fire in Yangon April 2, 2013. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
Police stand near a mosque and school dormitory that were damaged by a fire in Yangon April 2, 2013. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

By Aung Hla Tun and Min Zayar Oo

YANGON (Reuters) - A fire caused by faulty electrical equipment killed 13 boys at an Islamic school in Yangon on Tuesday, the fire service said, although some Muslims voiced concern since it came after a wave of anti-Muslim violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.

The boys suffocated after the fire broke out in a dormitory of the school in the central, multi-ethnic Botataung district of the former capital at about 2:40 a.m. (4:10 p.m. ET on Monday), neighbors and officials said.

Yangon Region Fire Service said it was setting up a team to investigate the fire with the police, the electricity company and representatives from Muslim groups.

"The fire, caused by the overheating of the transformer placed under the staircase, spread, trapping the boys sleeping in the attic. As a result, 13 twelve-year-old boys died of suffocation after inhaling smoke," a duty fire officer said, reading from a statement.

Armed riot police cordoned off the area but the crowd that had assembled in the area remained peaceful.

According to official records, electrical faults and overheating are major causes of fires in Yangon.

But, against the background of the recent sectarian violence, many Muslims were "very suspicious" about the Yangon fire, said Mya Aye, a Muslim member of the 88 Generation Students' pro-democracy group.

"We are worried and sad because innocent children died," he said.

A funeral for the 13 boys was due to be held on Tuesday afternoon.

Yangon, by far the biggest city in Myanmar, escaped the anti-Muslim violence in March although authorities posted police outside mosques and ordered restaurants in some areas to close early on some evenings as a precaution.

Officially, 43 people died in the Buddhist-led violence, which erupted in Meikhtila town in the center of the country on March 20 and included the fire-bombing of mosques.

It spread to at least 15 other towns and villages until President Thein Sein ordered soldiers and police to crack down on the unrest.

Neighbors and witnesses in the Botataung area of Yangon said the doors to the dormitory of the school may have been locked due to security concerns after the violence in March and the windows were barred.

"These children were about 13 or 14 years old. They died because they couldn't jump out of the windows, which were closed by iron bars," said Ye Naung Thein, a bystander.

(Additional reporting by Aye Win Myint in Yangon and Andrew R.C. Marshall in Bangkok; Writing by Alan Raybould; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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