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30 dead in Belarus hospital fire

MINSK, Belarus (AP) -- A fire believed to have been set by a psychiatric patient engulfed a Belarusian mental hospital Sunday, killing 30 patients and reducing much of the nearly century-old building to ash.

One of the 62 patients who lived at the hospital in the village of Randilovshchina, some 250 kilometers (150 miles) west of the capital Minsk, was missing. Emergency officials said they did not know whether he ran away or died in the pre-dawn blaze.

Another 31 patients received minor injuries, officials said. No hospital staff were in the building at the time of the fire.

A spokeswoman for President Alexander Lukashenko, Natalya Petkevich, said the fire was set by a patient who was known to be a pyromaniac and had tried to burn down the building on two previous occasions.

But Zarembo said investigators were also considering a second possibility -- that the fire resulted from carelessness on the part of the staff. He said officials had ruled out the possibility of an electrical fire.

A nurse and an orderly were sleeping in a separate building on the hospital grounds when the fire broke out, Zarembo said. When they awoke to screams and the smell of smoke, they apparently panicked and tried to extinguish the flames and rescue the patients themselves, instead of immediately contacting authorities.

"As a result of such poorly thought-out actions, by the time emergency personnel arrived, one of the hospital's wings was completely engulfed in flames and the roof and ceiling had collapsed," Emergency Situations Minister Valery Astapov told Belarusian television.

The patients, men and women aged 30 to 60 who were deemed unable to function independently and whose relatives refused to take care of them, all lived in a one-story wooden building constructed in 1905 with locked doors and bars on the windows, Zarembo said. He said most likely the doors of the patients' rooms were also locked.

The nurse and the orderly unlocked all of the doors they could, but some were already cut off by flames, Zarembo said. The building was divided into two wings separated by a stone wall, and the wing where the fire began was completely destroyed, he said. Damage was less severe in the other half.

Petkevich said the patient believed to have set the fire was killed. She said he had on two previous occasions attempted to set fire to the hospital and was known to be a pyromaniac.

Lukashenko ordered Prosecutor General Viktor Sheiman and the state secretary of the Belarusian Security Council, Gennady Nevyglas, to conduct a thorough investigation in the next week, Petkevich said.

Human rights activists said the fire was a result of the dismal state of Belarus' psychiatric hospitals, which are poorly funded and largely unreformed since the Soviet era.

"These are God-forsaken places that are closed to public monitoring," said Garry Poganyailo, deputy chairman of the Belarusian Helsinki Group, a leading human rights organization.

He said that even if the fire was set by a patient "it was the fault of the staff, who failed to fulfill their direct duties and watch the patients."

Reached by telephone, officials at the hospital refused to comment.

The fire occurred at 5 a.m. (0200 GMT), the Emergency Situations Ministry said. Officials in this often-secretive country did not release any information until about 12 hours later.

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