- The Washington Times - Monday, June 17, 2002

BEIJING (AP) Police ordered the arrest yesterday of the owner of an unlicensed Internet cafe where a fast-moving fire killed 24 customers trapped by iron window bars.
The official Xinhua news agency said yesterday's blaze was Beijing's deadliest since 1949, when the communist People's Republic was founded.
The 24-hour Lanjisu Cyber Cafe in the lively Haidian university district had been open for about a month and was operating without a license, Xinhua said. Most of the customers were students who took advantage of the cheaper Internet access rates offered late at night.
The cafe owner was not identified.
The fire on the second floor of the concrete two-story building broke out about 2:45 a.m. The cafe's only door was locked and there were no other exits, Xinhua said. Witnesses said there was room for at least 50 customers.
"I was awakened by people shouting, 'Help me, Help me,'" said a neighbor, who would give only his surname, Liu. "I saw smoke coming out of the windows closest to my apartment. The flames were mostly in the front of the building."
Neighbors managed to help one person escape, but the iron bars prevented others from getting out, Mr. Liu said. Rescuers later pried the bars off one window and pulled out several victims who appeared to have suffocated, he said.
Twenty of the victims died at the scene and four others in the hospital, Xinhua reported. Thirteen persons were being treated in hospitals, the agency said.
The cause of the fire was still under investigation, officials said. A grocery store and restaurant downstairs appeared undamaged.
A block of the tree-lined street was cordoned off from dozens of bystanders, and police could be seen inside filming and turning over debris. A striped blanket hung from one of the shattered windows, which were ringed with scorch marks.
One bystander said some of the people who were in the cafe when the fire started were his classmates.
"I saw them earlier that night, I feel so bad," he said, his eyes filling with tears.
Internet cafes, many open 24 hours a day, are immensely popular in China. The country says it has 33.7 million Internet users, but many families can't afford to buy computers. Xinhua said just 200 of Beijing's 2,400 Internet cafes are properly licensed.

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