BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Three Gypsy children died in a fire on Friday in a small wooden shack that has been their home on the outskirts of Belgrade, provoking a human rights official to lay partial responsibility on the Serbian state for treating Roma as second-rate citizens.
The Serbian capital's emergency service said the children, aged 5, 7 and 9, died in the blaze that broke out in the Gypsy settlement at around 1 a.m. local time. Officials said a lit candle triggered the fire as the children and their mother were asleep.
The 37-year-old mother, who managed to escape, was arrested for failing to provide security for her children.
There are an estimated 500,000 Gypsies — many resettled during the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s — living in Serbia, or about 7 percent of the population. Gypsies, or Roma, who mostly live in segregated, makeshift settlements throughout Serbia, have often faced harassment by far-right groups.
Sasa Jankovic, the official charged with protecting the rights of Serbia's citizens, said the state is partly to blame for the deaths by "ignoring inhumane living conditions" of the Gypsy population.
"This tragedy is another painful warning about the position of the Roma in their informal settlements," said Jankovic. "Concrete measures should be taken to improve their living conditions."