Fire at Guatemala home for abused children kills 34, girls were locked in room
Police and witnesses said the fire appeared to have been started by one of the girls, possibly as a protest after hours of being locked up. Photograph: (Reuters)
At least 34 girls were killed after a fire broke out at a government-run home for abused children in Guatemala.
The fire broke out in a tiny room the teenage girls were locked in to control them after a riot at the Virgen de Asuncion home in San Jose Pinula, authorities and witnesses said on Thursday, according to Reuters.
"The staff left the girls in an extremely reduced space, a four-metre by four-metre room, for 52 teenage girls," Reuters quoted Claudia Lopez -- Guatemala's deputy ombudsman for human rights -- as saying. "It was a terribly thought out decision."
The fire appeared to have been started by one of the girls, who set light to a mattress in the room, possibly as a protest after hours inside, police and witnesses said.
"If it really was the girls who started the fire - why did they have matches in their hand, why were they not searched if they were going to be locked into this tiny space?" Lopez said.
The shelter for youths takes in abandoned children and ex-offenders as well as victims of abuse and trafficking up to the age of 18.
Years of problems at the home boiled over at lunchtime on Tuesday when a group of teenagers complaining about the conditions inside feigned a fight in the lunch hall as a distraction, before attacking staff and trying to escape, one eyewitness told Reuters.
After hours of rioting, police captured most of those who had fled and they were separated from the hundreds of other residents in the complex, according to an account written by the government's human rights department and seen by Reuters.
During five hours of negotiations that evening, the leaders of the rebellion alleged abuse by the staff including rotten food and the use of bleach on their skin and pepper spray as punishment for bad behaviour, according to the document.
The Virgen de Asuncion home has long suffered from overcrowding, with Guatemalan media reporting that more than 500 people were crammed into the centre designed to house 400.
(WION with inputs from Reuters)