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Last Updated: Monday, 2 August, 2004, 15:24 GMT 16:24 UK
Paraguay shop fire toll tops 300
A child is carried from the scene of the Asuncion
Several hundred people were inside when the fire broke out
More than 300 people have died in a fire at a shopping centre in Paraguay's capital, Asuncion.

Hundreds more are injured and the death toll may rise as firefighters bring charred bodies out of the debris.

It is thought the fire was caused by a gas explosion at midday on Sunday when the Ycua Bolanos centre was packed with weekend shoppers.

"There are no words for this," said one man, who had just identified the body of his six-month-old nephew.

Orlando Correa was also searching for his sister among the bodies assembled in a discotheque that had become an improvised morgue.

The death toll has been mounting and remains unclear, with a government minister speaking of 311 dead and police sources talking of up to 340 dead.

The disaster has overwhelmed the emergency services of one of South America's poorest nations.
I lost my wife and kids as I rushed to get out. Now I'm desperately trying to find them
Francisco Barrios
Survivor

Police were forced to take the injured to hospital in trucks because of a lack of ambulances.

Local television showed firefighters trying to plug holes in their water hoses, Reuters news agency reported, and there have been appeals for people to donate basic supplies to hospitals.

Neighbouring Argentina has sent medical teams and emergency workers to assist.

'Doors locked'

Officials said about 300 people had been injured in the fire inside the shopping centre on the outskirts of the capital.

Firefighters work inside the gutted shopping centre
The shopping centre was gutted in the inferno

As the centre filled with smoke and flames, the basement gave way. Other floors are also thought to have collapsed, correspondents say.

Unconfirmed reports say people had to escape through the windows because the doors within the centre had been deliberately closed to prevent people leaving without paying.

The owner of the shopping centre is being questioned by the state prosecutor's office, which launched an investigation.

'Explosion'

The cause is not yet known but witnesses speak of hearing an explosion shortly before seeing flames.

Firefighters say gas canisters in a kitchen may have caused the blaze.

"There were sparks as if fireworks were going off. The store quickly caught fire and filled with smoke, triggering total confusion," Francisco Barrios, who survived the fire, was quoted as saying by the Associated Press news agency.

"I lost my wife and kids as I rushed to get out. Now I'm desperately trying to find them," Mr Barrios said.

President Nicanor Duarte, who rushed to the scene of the disaster, said: "This is a moment of great anguish."

Public Health Minister Julio Cesar Velazquez told reporters he had never seen "a disaster like this".


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Lisa Hampele
"The death toll is rising"



SEE ALSO:
Witnesses 'heard blast before fire'
02 Aug 04  |  Americas
In Pictures: Paraguay shop fire
01 Aug 04  |  In Pictures
Country profile: Paraguay
06 May 04  |  Country profiles
Timeline: Paraguay
30 Jun 04  |  Country profiles



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