Woman Acknowledges She May Have Accidentally Started Paris Hotel Blaze

PARIS (AP) -- A woman questioned over a deadly Paris hotel fire acknowledged that she could have started the blaze by accident, lighting candles that may have set aflame a pile of clothing, police and judicial officials said Tuesday.

The officials raised the death toll in the Friday fire to 24.

The woman, identified only as 31-year-old Fatima, was taken into custody Monday, three days after the Paris Opera hotel burned down. Judicial officials said she was the girlfriend of one of the hotel's night watchmen.

The woman told criminal investigators that she ''could be'' at the origin of the fire that started shortly after 2 a.m. Friday in the second-floor breakfast room of the budget hotel which housed mainly needy people, many of them Africans, police and the prosecutor's office said.

The prosecutor's office announced that it had opened an investigation for ''fire caused involuntarily, manslaughter and involuntary injuries'' following Fatima's account.

She told police that she went to the hotel following a call from her boyfriend and put a dozen lit candles on the floor of the breakfast room where she was setting up an improvised bedroom, a statement from the prosecutor's office said.

''After a violent dispute that she blamed on the inebriation of her companion, she finally left the hotel, throwing several piles of clothes on the floor in a fit of rage, without paying attention to the candles,'' the statement said.

The prosecutor's office put the death toll as of noon Tuesday at 24. Officials said 27 people remained hospitalized, 14 in serious condition. The nationalities of the dead have not been released.

The overcrowded hotel, in Paris' 9th district, housed mostly people who were placed there by social services. The 32-room hotel was meant to accommodate 61 people, but at least 90 people were known to be living there.

The manager of the hotel, not identified by name, was questioned Sunday, two days after the fire.

Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin said Sunday that he plans to work quickly toward new measures to reinforce fire regulations. He said experts had been asked for proposals and that the matter should be handled within several weeks.

The hotel's fire prevention system had been checked March 24, and four recommendations to improve safety were issued, but the problems were insufficient to close down the hotel, police said.