At least 38 inmates perished in a huge fire that broke out in a penitentiary in the capital Gitega and was attributed to an electrical short-circuit.

Much of the nearly century-old facility was destroyed by the flames.
Much of the nearly century-old facility was destroyed by the flames. ()

A huge fire has torn through an overcrowded prison in Burundi's capital Gitega, killing dozens of inmates and seriously injuring many more.

38 people were killed and 69 seriously hurt in the fire that began before dawn on Tuesday, according to Vice President Prosper Bazombanza.

The blaze broke out at about 0200 GMT (4:00 AM local). The fire was later brought under control, but many parts of the site were left in charred ruins.

Many prisoners were still asleep when the blaze took hold in the penitentiary according to witnesses.

"We started shouting that we were going to be burned alive when we saw the flames rising very high, but the police refused to open the doors of our quarters, saying 'these are the orders we have received'," an inmate said.

"I don't know how I escaped, but there are prisoners who were burned completely," he added.

Chronic overcrowding

The interior ministry said on Twitter that the disaster was caused by an electrical short-circuit at the nearly century-old prison, constructed in 1926 when Burundi was a Belgian colony.

A police source said the emergency services were late to the scene, with the first fire truck arriving two hours after the start of the blaze.

Victims with the most serious burns were taken to hospital, some ferried in police pick-up trucks, while others with milder cases were treated at the scene, witnesses said.

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The prison was struck by another fire in August according to the interior ministry, which also blamed an electrical fault. No casualties were reported from that incident.

The facility, the third largest in Burundi, housed a number of political prisoners in a high-security compound. There was also a women's wing.

In all, it was home to more than 1,500 inmates at the end of November, according to prison authority figures, far higher than its designed capacity of 400.

Chronic overcrowding is a problem in prisons in Burundi, one of the poorest nations in the world, and inmates often complain about their cramped living conditions and lack of food.

"Sometimes we have gone for up to three days without being given supplies by the prison, and our families cannot help us because since June 2020 we have not been allowed visits under the pretext of protecting us from Covid-19," one prisoner said.
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Source: TRTWorld and agencies