35 die in fire at Karen refugee camp
MAE HONG SON: Rescue workers picked through the ashes of hundreds of shelters on Saturday after a ferocious blaze swept through a camp for Karen refugees in Mae Hong Son, killing 35 people.
- Published: 23/03/2013 at 12:00 AM
- Newspaper section: topstories
Around 100 people were injured in the fire that broke out Friday night at the Mae Surin camp, provincial governor Narumol Paravat told AFP by telephone, giving a reduced toll from the 45 dead previously stated.
"The final death toll is 35. There was confusion in the body count," she said. Some earlier reports had put the number killed at as many as 62.
Only a handful of homes survived the inferno, according to an AFP photographer at the scene, who said some refugees had already started cutting bamboo to build new shelters.
Karen refugees take shelter on the road near the Ban Mae Surin refugee camp on Friday night after fire burned down their thatch huts. (AP Photo)
The blaze is believed to have destroyed between 300 and 400 houses and left more than 2,000 people homeless at the remote mountainous camp.
Dr Paisarn Thanyawinitchakul, the chief of the Mae Hong Son Public Health Office, said most of the victims could not escape the blaze and some died of suffocation.
A senior national intelligence official said most of the dead were women, the elderly and children. About 200 people were injured and were being treated in hospital.
Khun Yuam district chief Sangkom Klapthiangsaen said the blaze burned more than 300 huts, mostly made of bamboo and roofed with dried grass, before it was brought under control on Saturday morning.
Security sources said the blaze was not an act of sabotage.
However, investigators are trying to determine if the blaze was caused by an accidental cooking fire, or by sparks blown from forest fires that have been burning in the area.
Sakotu (surname not given), one of the Karen survivors, said he first heard people shouting,"Fire, fire!" He then went out of his house and tried to help others douse it.
"The wind was strong, causing the fire to spread quickly and we had to run for our lives," said Sakotu, 20, who later discovered that his mother had been injured in the blaze and was now being treated in Khun Yuam hospital.
Rescue workers were on the scene at the remote mountainous camp area, Mae Hong Son provincial governor Narumol Paravat told AFP by telephone.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, informed of the fire while on an official visit to New Zealand, ordered officials to provide all needed assistance to the victims.
She asked the Interior Ministry, the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Department and the armed forces to set up an emergency centre to ensure sufficient food, drinking water, medicines and clothing for the affected refugees.
Deputy Interior Minister Chatt Kuldiloke and ministry officials visited the camp on Saturday to oversee the establishment of temporary shelters and provision of medical treatment.
Hospitals in Mae Hong Son had dispatched teams of medical personnel to tend the injured.
Chatchai Promlert, director-general of the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Department, said he had instructed the department's regional centres to assist as well.
A school, clinic and two food warehouses had also been destroyed, the department reported.
Temporary shelters for the homeless are being provided by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
"We have been able to get into the camp with food supplies and plastic sheets for shelters," said Vivian Tan, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR.
The camp, located about 90 kilometres west of Mae Hong Son, town houses about 3,300 Karen refugees, she said.
It is one of nine refugee camps on the Thai-Myanmar border set up more than two decades ago to offer asylum for ethnic Karen fleeing the fighting between the Myanmar army and rebel troops.
There are an estimated 140,000 refugees in camps in Thailand.
After a new quasi-civilian government replaced the long-ruling junta in Myanmar two years ago, Thailand announced it wanted to shut the border camps, raising concern among their residents.
But so far the displaced residents have been allowed to stay and the Thai government has stressed that it will only send them back when it is safe.
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- Writer: AFP and Post Reporters