- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 1, 2004

ASUNCION, Paraguay (Agence France-Presse) — Fire raged through a shopping center on the outskirts of the Paraguayan capital early yesterday, killing at least 283 persons, police said.

National police spokesman Santiago Velazco said more bodies were expected to be recovered from the burned-out building.

“Recovery teams are working slowly and cautiously as they retrieve the bodies,” Mr. Velazco said. “We’ve tallied some 300 people injured.”

Officials said the fire is likely to have been sparked by gas canisters that exploded. The blaze also consumed a significant part of a supermarket within the shopping complex.

Emergency workers were recovering bodies from the complex, which also houses offices and a parking garage. Officials said there were concerns that the complex might collapse.

Officials gave no cause for the blaze, but said an explosion was heard moments before the fire broke out.

Paraguayan President Nicanor Duarte quickly arrived at the complex with Interior Minister Orlando Fiorotto.

“It’s a painful moment,” Mr. Duarte said. “The police and fire service are working to reduce the magnitude of this disaster.”

An unidentified fireman at the scene told Channel 4 television that he had counted 75 bodies inside the complex. Another fireman said he had seen as many as 90 corpses.

Other witnesses told the network that doors in the complex had been closed so that people could not leave without paying, and that this had hampered people seeking to flee.

“When they arrived, the police and firemen opened the doors, but it was already too late,” witness Rosa Resquin said.

The owner of the complex, Juan Pio Paiva, has surrendered to the authorities, but he denied reports of orders to close the complex’s doors.

Doctors and emergency workers from the Argentine province of Formosa, which borders Paraguay’s southern border, were rushing to the site on the outskirts of Asuncion.

Authorities in the province also said that they would make their hospitals available to victims of the blaze as the Argentine air force readied a plane to speed aid delivery.

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