A massive fire ripped through an overcrowded prison in Burundi before dawn on Tuesday, with fears of heavy casualties as inmates were still confined to their cells at the time, witnesses said.
The blaze at the facility in the political capital Gitega broke out at about 4:00 am (0200 GMT) and destroyed several areas of the prison, they said. One said about 20 injured people were taken to hospital.
The cause of the fire was not immediately known and as yet there has been no official comment on the incident.
“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,” one detainee told by phone.
“I don’t know how I escaped, but there are prisoners who were burned completely.”
The prison housed more than 1,500 inmates at the end of November, according to prison authority figures, far higher than its capacity of 400. A large contingent of police and soldiers were surrounding the site and preventing journalists from approaching or taking pictures, the witnesses said.
A police source said the emergency services were late to the scene, with a fire truck arriving only two hours after the start of the blaze.
In August, the prison was also struck by another fire without causing any casualties, according to the interior ministry, which blamed it on an electrical short-circuit.