A massive fire ripped through an overcrowded prison in Burundi before dawn on Tuesday, killing dozens of inmates and seriously injuring many more, the country’s vice president said.
Many inmates were still sleeping at the time of the blaze that destroyed several parts of the facility in Burundi’s political capital Gitega, witnesses said.
Vice President Prosper Bazombanza, who visited the scene of the tragedy with several senior ministers, told reporters that 38 people were killed and 69 seriously hurt.
The blaze broke out at about 4:00 am (0200 GMT). The interior ministry said on Twitter it was caused by an electrical short-circuit.
“We started shouting that we were going to be burned alive when we saw the flames rising very high, but the police refused to open the doors of our quarters, saying ‘these are the orders we have received’,” one inmate disclosed.
“I don’t know how I escaped, but there are prisoners who were burned completely,” he said.
Those with the most serious burns were taken to hospital, some ferried in police pick-up trucks, while others with milder cases were treated at the scene, witnesses said.
Teams from the Red Cross in Burundi were at the scene to tend to victims, and the flames had now been brought under control, witnesses said.
The nearly 100-year-old facility, the third largest in Burundi, housed a number of political prisoners in a high-security compound, and there was also a women’s wing.
In all, there were more than 1,500 inmates at the end of November, according to prison authority figures, far higher than its designed capacity of 400.
A large contingent of police and soldiers were surrounding the site and preventing journalists from approaching or taking pictures, the witnesses said.
A police source said the emergency services were late to the scene, with a fire truck arriving only two hours after the start of the blaze.
The same prison in Gitega, which lies in the heart of the tiny country, was struck by another fire in August, according to the interior ministry, which blamed it on an electrical short-circuit.
No casualties were reported from that incident.
Chronic overcrowding is a problem in Burundi’s prisons, where there were a total of about 12,400 inmates living in accommodation designed for 4,200, according to October figures, despite a presidential amnesty in June which saw 5,000 prisoners released.