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Monday, 25 March, 2002, 23:53 GMT
Cleric sacked over Saudi school fire
Mecca city governor, Prince Abdulmajeed bin Abdul Aziz, visits the fire-damaged girls school
A student was blamed for starting the fire
An inquiry into a fire at a girls' school in the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca has concluded that the education authority neglected safety measures that could have prevented the deaths of 15 girls.

The official in charge of Saudi girls' schools, Muslim cleric Ali bin Murshid el-Murshid, was dismissed on Sunday and his department merged with the Education Ministry.

Saudi hospital staff carry a victim of the girl school fire to an ambulance in Mecca
15 girls died in the blaze and more than 50 were injured

But the report - carried by most newspapers in the kingdom - absolved Saudi Arabia's powerful religious police of blame for making the death toll worse.

The report into the fire two weeks ago said that the girls' education authority had ignored warnings from the headmistress of the school that overcrowding there could cause a fatal stampede.

It also found that there were not enough fire alarms and extinguishers.

'Step towards reform'

The report said that the fire had been caused by a student who put a cigarette out on a pile of papers.

But it said that the department responsible for the education of girls was also to blame.

King Fahd dismissed Mr Murshid and gave his responsibilities to officials in the Education Ministry.

The two agencies have been separate for 40 years, with girls' education in the control of the religious establishment.

Many newspapers approved Mr el-Murshid's dismissal, seeing the decision as a step towards reform of the country's conservative education system.

But accusations that the religious police had prevented girls fleeing the school because they were not wearing head scarves were dismissed as "untrue".

Allegations against police

The mutaween - or Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice - are widely feared in Saudi Arabia. They roam the streets enforcing dress codes and sex segregation, and ensuring prayers are performed on time.

About 800 pupils were inside the school when the tragedy occurred on 11 March. More than 50 were injured in the incident.

A witness said that police had beaten back the girls as they tried to escape.

But Interior Minister Prince Nayef last week denied the charges, saying that two members of the police force had gone to the scene of the fire to prevent "mistreatment" of the girls.

See also:

18 Mar 02 | Middle East
Saudi minister backs religious police
15 Mar 02 | Middle East
Saudi police 'stopped' fire rescue
11 Mar 02 | Middle East
Schoolgirls die in Mecca stampede
07 Mar 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Saudi Arabia
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