10 dead in an apartment fire in Xinjiang, northwest China

BEIJING (AP) — A fire at an apartment building in northwest China’s Xinjiang region killed 10 people and injured nine, authorities said Friday, amid severe lockdowns that have left many area residents stranded in their homes. houses for more than three months.

The fire broke out Thursday night in the regional capital of Urumqi, where temperatures dropped below freezing after dark.

The flames spread upward from the 15th to 17th floors, with smoke billowing up to the 21st floor, according to multiple state media reports. The fire took about three hours to extinguish.

The deaths and injuries were caused by inhaling toxic fumes, with those taken to hospital all should survive, reports said. An initial investigation appeared to show that the fire had been started by a power strip in a bedroom of one of the 15th floor apartments.

A Uyghur living in exile in Switzerland said he learned from a phone call with a neighbor that his aunt and four of her children died in the fire.

“She was a wonderful woman, always thinking about her children and how to treat and educate them well,” Abdulhafız Muhammed Emin said, sobbing during a telephone interview. “My heart is really broken, I can’t stand it.”

Xinjiang has been under strict lockdowns for over three months to combat the spread of the coronavirus under China’s zero-COVID policy. The country has faced a surge in cases in recent weeks, resulting in ongoing lockdowns and tight travel restrictions affecting hundreds of millions of people.

Videos circulated on social media showed an arc of water from a distant fire truck falling before the blaze, sparking waves of angry comments online. Some said the fire engines had been stranded by pandemic barriers or stranded cars after their owners were quarantined, but why the truck was away was unclear.

Many Xinjiang residents are frustrated with China’s strict COVID-19 controls. In September, some reported hunger amid irregular food deliveries.

Xinjiang “is an open-air prison,” Muhammed Emin said. “The Chinese government doesn’t care about their lives.”

Urumqi Mayor Memtimin Qadir apologized to city residents during a press conference on Saturday and announced the formation of a government team to investigate the fire.

During the press conference, Urumqi authorities said that the fire doors were not locked and that residents were allowed to go downstairs “for activity” as the community had been designated a “COVID-19 low-risk area” .

“Some residents’ ability to save themselves was too weak…and they couldn’t escape in time,” said Li Wensheng, head of the Urumqi City Fire Department.

Muhammed Emin disputes that account, citing social media posts alleging that many apartment residents have been locked in their homes due to COVID-19 controls. Another post said residents were only allowed downstairs for a few hours a day and were not free to enter and exit the building. The Associated Press could not independently verify the claims in the social media posts.

Urumqi has not suffered a major recent outbreak, with just 977 cases reported on Friday, almost all of which are asymptomatic. However, as in many parts of China, local officials who fear losing their jobs are turning to more extreme measures to prevent outbreaks within their jurisdictions.

The tragedy comes days after 38 people died in a fire at an industrial trading company in central China caused by welding sparks that set cotton fabrics on fire.

Four people were arrested on Monday over the fire in Anyang city and local authorities ordered sweeping safety inspections to root out potential dangers.

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