YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — A fire engulfed a mosque housing Muslim schoolchildren in Myanmar's largest city Tuesday, killing at least 13. Authorities, anxious over sectarian violence that has shaken the nation, quickly blamed the blaze on an accidental electrical short.
Security forces and three trucks of riot police blocked off roads around the scarred, two-story building compound in eastern Yangon which encompasses a mosque, a Muslim school and a dormitory. There were no reports of violence, but around 200 Muslim residents gathered uneasily nearby, many expressing suspicions the fire had been set intentionally.
Myanmar has been on edge after sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims erupted in the central city of Meikhtila in March, killing dozens of people and displacing more than 10,000. The violence that has largely targeted Muslims has since spread to several other towns where extremist Buddhist mobs have torched or ransacked mosques and Muslim-owned property.
Security bars blocked most of the white building's windows, which were marked by black smoke in the late morning. The building burned from the inside, and firefighters had extinguished the flames before dawn.
Mosque member Soe Myint said most of the children were sleeping on the ground floor when the blaze began and they were able to flee to safety.
But 16 of them were sleeping in a small loft on the first floor and were trapped when the ladder that led to the loft caught fire. Three boys jumped to safety, he said, and the rest died.
Police officer Thet Lwin, who was at the scene before dawn, said the fire was triggered by an electrical short "and not due to any criminal activity."
Every time he mentioned the word "electrical short," though, angry Muslims shouted and began banging on vehicles with their fists.
Zaw Min Htun, a member of a local Muslim youth organization, said he raced to the mosque early Tuesday after hearing it was on fire.
"Muslims are very angry," he said, calling on authorities to investigate what happened. "The children are innocent .... Someone burned the mosque."
Zaw Min Htun said he saw no burned wires inside the mosque and said the building's fuse box was in good condition.