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Saturday, 1 September, 2001, 00:25 GMT 01:25 UK
Tokyo blast kills 44
Kabukicho crowd
Late-night crowds watched the rescue efforts
An explosion which sparked a fire in a building in a busy Tokyo entertainment district has killed at least 44 people. with others critically injured in hospital.

It is unclear what caused the blast which went off about 0100 on Saturday (1600GMT Friday) in the popular Kabukicho entertainment district near Shinjuku railway station.

Police now believe that they have rescued everyone who was in the building, which houses a mahjong gaming parlour, sex clubs and several restaurants.

People found it hard to flee the fire, because there were few windows and only one entrance to the building.

There were 32 men and 12 women among the dead, most of whom died from burns or smoke inhalation.

Cause unknown

Police said the explosion ripped a hole measuring 1.5 metres by 50 centimentres (five feet by 1.5 feet) in the wall of the building.

Firefighter rescue
Three people were rescued from the roof by firefighter's ladder
It was unknown what had caused the blast, which apparently happened after an employee in the mahjong parlour opened a door on the third floor of the building.

Witnesses said they heard a loud bang, and smoke started emerging from the building.

People in the parlour fled to the roof, as the fire spread through the third and fourth floors.

The top two floors were totally gutted by the fire, which took five hours to put out.

Shinjuku firefighters
Firefighters took five hours to put out the blaze
Although most of the injured suffered burns, three people were hurt when they fell or jumped from the building in an effort to escape the fire.

Firefighters with ladders rescued people who had fled to the roof to escape the flames.

The fire is believed to be one of the worst ever seen in the Japanese capital.

In 1982, 33 people died when a hotel in the city's Akasaka district went up in flames.

The BBC's Charles Scanlon in Tokyo
"Crowds gathered to watch"
See also:

27 Jul 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Japan
10 Feb 01 | Asia-Pacific
The dark side of Tokyo's hostess bars
08 Jun 01 | Asia-Pacific
Violent crime stalks Japan's youth
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