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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

Huge fire destroys Brazil's National Museum

'Incalculable loss for Brazil', says President Michel Temer

A massive fire raced through Brazil's 200-year-old National Museum in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday, likely destroying its collection of more than 20 million items, ranging from archaeological finds to historical memorabilia.

The destruction of the building, once a palace for emperors that had fallen into disrepair, was an "incalculable loss for Brazil", President Michel Temer said in a statement.

"Two hundred years of work, research and knowledge were lost."

There was no word of the possible cause late on Sunday, nor if there were casualties or the exact extent of the damage.

Roberto Robadey, a spokesman for the fire department, said 80 firefighters were battling the blaze and that by midnight local time it was "just about under control" and should be out within a few hours.

Live television broadcast images of the fire, which began after the end of visiting hours at 5 pm, burning out of control throughout the building late into the night.

The museum, which is tied to the Rio de Janeiro federal university and the education ministry, was founded in 1818. It houses several landmark collections, including Egyptian artefacts and the oldest human fossil found in Brazil.

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Mr Robadey said firefighters got off to a slow start fighting the blaze because the two fire hydrants closest to the museum were not functioning. Instead, trucks had to be sent to get water from a nearby lake.

But he added that some of the museum's pieces had been spared.

"We were able to remove a lot of things from inside with the help of workers of the museum," Robadey told Globo News.

The museum had suffered from years of neglect under numerous governments, the institution's vice-director told the Globo TV network on Sunday night.

"We never got anything from the federal government," said the official, Luiz Duarte. "We recently finalised an agreement with [state-run development bank] BNDES for a massive investment, so that we could finally restore the palace and, ironically, we had planned on a new fire prevention system."

In a statement posted on its website in June, BNDES agreed to finance 21.7 million reais (Dh19.65 million) to "physically restore the historic building" and also to carry out work to "guarantee more security to its collections."

Latin America's largest nation has struggled to emerge from its worst recession in decades. The state of Rio de Janeiro has been particularly hard hit in recent years thanks to a combination of falling world prices of oil, one of its major revenue sources, mismanagement and massive corruption.

Just over a month before national elections, even before the flames were put out, the fire was leading to recriminations about dilapidated infrastructure and budget deficits in the city that hosted the 2016 Summer Olympics.

"Unfortunately, given the financial straits of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and all the other public universities the last three years, this was a tragedy that could be seen coming," Marina Silva, one of the leading presidential candidates, tweeted.

On Instagram, Rio Mayor Marcelo Crivella called on the country to rebuild.

"It's a national obligation to reconstruct it from the ashes, recompose every eternal detail of the paintings and photos. Even if they are not original, they continue to be a reminder of the royal family that gave us independence, the [Portuguese] empire and the first constitution and national unity," he said.