Many of 17 Killed in Paris Blaze Were Children

PARIS (AP) -- Fire raced through a crowded Paris apartment building housing African immigrants early Friday, trapping residents in their sleep and killing 17 people - most of them believed to be children, police said.

At least 30 people were injured, including a firefighter, in the blaze at the seven-story building on the corner of a major boulevard in southeast Paris.

It was the second deadly blaze in four months at buildings housing immigrants. In April, a fire at a budget Paris hotel killed 24 people, also mostly from Africa. Many of them were children.

The victims of the latest fire - some of whom reportedly jumped from windows - were mainly from the West African nation of Mali. Others were from Senegal, Ghana and Tunisia, building residents said.

At least eight children - and possibly as many as 14 - were among the dead, according to a police official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to comment publicly. A definitive count could not immediately be established because of the condition of the burned bodies, he said.

''There are lots of bodies that are unidentifiable,'' he said.

Police and firefighters had earlier reported six children were killed.

''It's an extremely heavy toll,'' said Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who visited the scene.

The children had been ''asphyxiated,'' he said. ''It's an abominable spectacle.''

The minister blamed the high death toll on overcrowded conditions.

Serge Blisko, mayor of the 13th district, said the victims had ''visibly, died in their sleep, asphyxiated and not burned.''

One resident described being awakened by cries from children and adults, then rushing to his window on the building's second floor.

People ''jumped out the windows. They didn't care about dying,'' said 71-year-old Oumar Cisse, originally from Mali.

''This dreadful catastrophe plunges all of France into mourning,'' said a statement from President Jacques Chirac. He asked that the cause of the blaze be determined as quickly as possible so that ''all the consequences can be drawn.''

The fire broke out shortly after midnight in the stairwell of the building, said Capt. Jacques Dauvergne, spokesman for the firefighters. The fire burned through the upper floors for about three hours and it took about 210 firefighters 90 minutes to bring it under control, he said.

Police were investigating the cause.

The state-owned building was run by the humanitarian organization Emmaus and was under the direct care of a linked association France-Euro Habitat, according to local officials and building residents.

About 100 children and 30 adults lived in the building, according to Cisse, who has lived in the building for 15 years.

He said the building was in a decrepit state, infested with rats and mice. Walls were cracked and lead was in the paint that covered them, he said.

''It was totally unfit,'' said Cisse, who acts as a go-between for residents and an association that manages the building.

Blisko said the building was ''overcrowded,'' particularly with children.

''They talk about three-room apartments with 12 people,'' Blisko said in an interview. ''When you have this type of fire and people are sleeping, you can be sure the toll will be high.''

Sarkozy said he has asked that all such buildings be inventoried with an eye to closing some.

Sory Cassama, who lived in the building with his wife and 12 children, said he was asleep when a daughter knocked on the door. Their living room had filled with smoke.

''There was so much smoke in the stairwell, but we were still able to get out,'' said Cassama, who said his wife was hospitalized from smoke inhalation.