By Kwasi Kpodo
ACCRA (Reuters) - The owner of a shopping mall which collapsed in the Ghanaian capital apologized on Friday for the loss of lives but denied accusations he had not obtained authorization for the building.
At least nine people died when the mall, operated by Indian retailer Melcom Ltd, caved in shortly after opening for business on Wednesday. Some 70 survivors have been rescued and sent to nearby hospitals.
"I am personally distraught - I sincerely regret the loss of lives as a result of the collapse of my building and I ask Ghanaians to forgive me for the death of their children," property owner Boadu Nkansah Ayeboafo told a radio program.
Ayeboafo denied accusations by the city authorities that the building was not authorized.
"It can never be true - I have all the relevant documents relating to the construction - they include the receipts for the permit and I have them as we speak," he said.
Accra is in a construction boom spurred by oil-fuelled economic growth, but building standards region-wide are generally poor and enforcement is often lax.
Emergency officials said more people than initially thought were still trapped in the wreckage of the department store, which collapsed due to suspected structural failure.
"It is difficult to estimate how many more people are still missing, but we believe they are not as much as the number that has been pulled out," police spokesman Freeman Tettey said.
"It has been decided that this operation should continue so long as we suspect there are people down there - we have to get to the bottom of the rubble," he said.
A team of Israeli experts joined the search on Thursday with special equipment and sniffer dogs to bolster rescue efforts, as distraught relatives looked on.
"I have been here since yesterday and up till now, I can't find my sister, I can't see my sister - I am here praying to gods if they can find my sister for me," said truck driver John Abubakar, tears rolling down his cheeks.
A survivor said the four-storey building collapsed while employees were in morning prayers ahead of the start of business.
"All we heard was a cracking noise of one of the pillars - we saw it coming down and we started running. Then there was a big bang and I blacked out," 32-year old Selina Ghartey told Reuters from her hospital bed.
President John Mahama, running for election in December, cut short his campaign tour to visit the site and promised an inquiry into how the building's owner was able to circumvent building codes.
State investigators have arrested a building inspection director, deputy information minister Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa said.
(Editing by Bate Felix and Robin Pomeroy)