YANGON // Police said they were investigating the head of a mosque and a Muslim teacher for possible negligence after a pre-dawn fire killed 13 children at a religious school yesterday.
The blaze raised concerns over sectarian tensions following anti-Muslim violence in central Myanmar last month.
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 on March 20, killing dozens of people and displacing more than 12,000, mostly Muslims. The violence spread to several other towns where extremist Buddhist mobs torched or ransacked mosques and Muslim-owned property.
A police officer, Thet Lwin, said that about 75 children lived at the burnt complex in eastern Yangon - which encompasses a mosque, a school and a dormitory - and most were able to escape through a door knocked open by rescue workers. Security bars blocked most of the building's windows.
One mosque member, Soe Myint, said that 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.
"The whole mosque smelled of diesel," he said. "We don't use diesel at the school."
Myint Swe, the chief minister of the Yangon administrative division, said police discovered a diesel container underneath a staircase. He said the fuel was used to power a generator.
Hla Myint, whose 15-year-old nephew died in the blaze, waited in a crowd outside Yangon General Hospital, where the dead were taken. Two trucks of riot police were parked nearby. "We sent him to school only yesterday and today he is dead," she said. "We are so sad we can't express it."
Several thousand mourners gathered later at a cemetery on the outskirts of Yangon for a group burial.
Authorities are investigating the head of the mosque and a teacher, but no arrests had been made, said Yangon city's police chief, Win Naing. "As the two people in charge, they are responsible for this," he said.
Win Naing said the fire started in a voltage regulator under the stairs that led to the sleeping loft and that firefighters had to break two locks on the door of the mosque to rescue the survivors. He ruled out arson, saying that three police had been guarding the mosque.
Mr Lwin blamed the fire on an electrical short circuit "and not due to any criminal activity".
Every time he mentioned the words "electrical short", 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.
Security forces and three trucks of riot police blocked off roads around the burnt building in Yangon as a crowd of 200 onlookers, mostly Muslims, gathered.
Zaw Min Htun, a member of a local Muslim youth organisation, said he raced to the mosque after hearing it was on fire. "Muslims are very angry," he said. "The children are innocent. Someone burned the mosque."
The surge in sectarian unrest in Myanmar has cast a shadow over president Thein Sein's administration as it struggles to make democratic changes after a half century of military rule. His government has warned that the violence could threaten the reform process.
Hundreds of people were killed last year and more than 100,000 made homeless in violence in western Myanmar between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.