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Wednesday, 19 June, 2002, 12:27 GMT 13:27 UK
Two boys held for Beijing cybercafe fire
An officer from the fire department checks the bottles of fire extinguisher at an Internet cafe in the eastern city of Nanjing
The authorities are now clamping down on cafe safety
Two teenage boys have been arrested for starting the fire that killed 24 people at an unlicensed internet cafe in Beijing at the weekend.

A statement from the city publicity department said the boys - aged 13 and 14 - had confessed.

Scene of Sunday's fire
The fire at the weekend killed 24 people
One of the boys was seen on Chinese television telling police interrogators that he had started the fire in an act of revenge because staff at the cybercafe had refused to let him play computer games there.

The blaze has led to the closure of all internet cafes in Beijing and some of China's other cities, as safety checks are carried out.

But there has been a backlash among angry Chinese internet surfers, who have posted messages blaming the government for failing to shut down unsafe, unlicensed entertainment venues.

Students killed

Twenty people died at the scene of Sunday's fire at Lanjisu Cyber Cafe, and four others died later in hospital.

Thirteen people were treated for injuries.

Most of the victims were students - the cafe was in Beijing's university district - attracted by the cafe's cheap late-night internet rates.

There was only one exit to the room, and the windows were barred.

Beijing has now closed its 2,400 mostly illegal internet cafes and plans to let only 200 re-open, pending new regulations.

Surfers' anger

Internet users in Beijing have reacted angrily to the closure.

They are accusing the city government of using Sunday's fire as an excuse to crack down on what is one of the very few arenas in China for free expression.

Web surfers posted messages on Wednesday arguing that rather than shutting down the cafes, officials should have done a better job of regulating them.

"If 400 out of Beijing's 2,400 Internet cafes are illegal, then people might consider that reasonable, but 90 percent? What were Beijing's law enforcement agencies doing?," wrote one surfer.

Chinese internet users
Chinese internet users are angry at the crackdown

But a BBC correspondent in Beijing, Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, says that it is precisely the illegality of the majority of the cafes that attracts young people, operating as they do outside the Chinese Government's strict internet regulations.

Chinese rules ban not only pornography, but foreign news sites and discussion of a host of topics, from human rights to government corruption.

An official hi-tech police - nicknamed "the great firewall of China" - keeps watch over the internet 24 hours a day.

Those cyber cafes which avoid the regulations by operating underground are at pains to protect their anonymity.

Death traps

Our correspondent says that many are potential death traps and few have any fire safety equipment.

Witnesses said customers at the cafe where the fire broke out had to rap at a bolted door to get in and out.

The cafe's manager, Zheng Wenjing, 36, from Beijing, handed himself in to authorities on Monday. He could face severe punishment.

See also:

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16 Jun 02 | Asia-Pacific
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11 Feb 02 | Science/Nature
06 Jun 02 | Business
22 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
26 Dec 00 | Asia-Pacific
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