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13 children die in Myanmar mosque fire, authorities dispatch riot police

YANGON, Myanmar -- Police in Myanmar said they were investigating the head of a mosque and a Muslim teacher for possible negligence after a pre-dawn fire swept a religious dormitory Tuesday, killing 13 children in a blaze that raised new concern over sectarian tensions that have plagued the country since anti-Muslim violence hit the nation's heartland 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 in March, killing dozens of people and displacing more than 12,000, mostly Muslims.

Police officer Thet Lwin said about 75 children lived in the torched compound in eastern Yangon — which encompasses a mosque, a school and a dormitory — and most were able to escape by running out of a door rescue workers knocked open. Security bars blocked most of the building's windows, which were stained by black smoke hours after firefighters put out the flames.

Mosque member Soe Myint said 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 and urged authorities to launch a thorough investigation.

“The whole mosque smelled of diesel,” he said. “We don't use diesel at the school.”

Yangon Division Chief Minister Myint Swe told reporters late Tuesday that police discovered a diesel container underneath a staircase. He said the fuel was normally used to power a mosque generator when the electricity is out.

Later Tuesday, several thousand mourners gathered at a cemetery on the outskirts of Yangon for a group burial. The charred bodies of the children were wrapped in white cloth before being lowered into the ground as women wept nearby.

U.S. Ambassador Derek Mitchell issued a statement saying he was “deeply saddened” by the deaths. He also called on the government to “conduct a thorough and transparent investigation into the cause.”

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