At least seven burnt to death in Baghdad inferno

Thu May 1, 3:18 PM ET

BAGHDAD (AFP) - At least seven people were burnt to death at a petrol station in an impoverished Baghdad neighbourhood and around 20 badly hurt when a spark turned the site into a raging inferno.

Rescue workers and US soldiers said more bodies remained inside the blaze, which was still burning hours after it was set off in mid-afternoon, trapping helpless people who had been queuing to buy petrol.

There appeared to be no act of crime or terror that set off the blaze but the cause was not immediately clear.

Local firemen were overwhelmed by the size of the blaze and residents risked their lives to try to rescue those inside, drenching themselves in water before racing into the roaring flames.

"There are still charred bodies littering the ground but we can't get to them. They are scattered all over in tiny pieces so there's no way to tell how many more there are," said Hassan al-Awani, 18, one of the civilian volunteers.

An official at Karameh hospital, Iyad Hashem, told AFP that at least seven people had been killed and 20 others badly burnt, most of them in critical condition.

"There may be more wounded because some were taken to other hospitals. Eighteen people are in critical condition, burnt over 70 to 90 percent of their bodies," Hashem said.

He pointed to the hospital's list of dead, which was blank. "I can't give you any names. They have been burnt beyond all recognition."

The stench of burnt flesh was thick in the air around the site, in the city's poor Alawi quarter. Firefighters gave up hope of putting out the blaze and asked US troops to bring a bulldozer to dig up earth to cover the station.

Witnesses said dozens of people were waiting to buy petrol, one of the most coveted commodities in the chaotic daily life of post-war Baghdad, where many are still without electricity and running water.

The streets of city are lined with men and children selling petrol out of makeshift containers, and some witnesses said they thought a spark from someone dragging his purchase along the ground had set off the blaze.

Gunfire was also heard in the area just before the fire erupted. Most residents said this was in celebration of electricity briefly returning to the neighbourhood but it was unclear if shots hit the station.

Baghdad residents have taken to firing in the air any time electricity is turned back on in this battered, war-weary city.

"The fire spread so fast that people's shirts caught fire as they were running away," said Ishab Fajr, 19.

US troops in control of the city quickly arrived on the scene after noticing the tower of smoke in the sky.

"There was very little we could do," said one of the soldiers, who asked that his name not be used.

But after US troops cordonned off the area, relatives and neighbours became angry that they could not get into the site to keep up the search for the remains of those burnt inside.

"Why won't you let us through?" one woman shouted as US soldiers kept back the crowd. "We want to get at our loved ones."

One American soldier embraced a young boy who was weeping on the pavement. The child said his father was missing.

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