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At least 52 dead, 22 injured in COVID-19 hospital fire in Iraq

At least 52 people were killed and 22 others
injured in a fire likely caused by an oxygen tank explosion at a COVID-19
hospital in Iraq’s southern city of Nassiriya, health officials and police said
on Monday (Jul 12).

This is the second such deadly blaze in Iraq in three

The fire broke out at the Al-Hussein hospital late on Monday
and was brought under control by local civil defence forces.

Haydar al-Zamili, the local health authority’s spokesperson,
said early Tuesday morning that 52 bodies were retrieved and another 22
people were wounded in the latest toll, after the fire had “ripped through
the COVID-19 isolation ward”.

“The victims died of burns and the search is
continuing,” he said, noting that there were fears victims could still be
trapped inside the building. The ward had space for 70 beds.

As rescuers combed the smoke-charred building in search of
more bodies, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi held urgent meetings with senior
ministers and ordered the suspension and arrest of health and civil defence
managers in Nassiriya, his office said in a statement

The manager of the hospital was also suspended and ordered
to be arrested, the statement added.

“The catastrophe of Al-Hussein Hospital is clear proof
of the failure to protect the lives of Iraqis, and it is time to put an end to
this,” wrote Mohamed al-Halbousi, Iraq’s Parliament Speaker, on Twitter.

Iraq’s interior ministry said on Facebook late Monday that
the fire tore through temporary structures erected next to the main building,
but did not specify the cause.

Already decimated by war and sanctions, Iraq’s healthcare
system has struggled to cope with the coronavirus crisis, which has killed
17,592 people and infected more than 1.4 million.

“Health crews carried charred bodies out of the burning
hospital while many patients were coughing from the rising smoke,” a
Reuters reporter at the site of the fire said.

Health officials at Nassiriya said search operations at the
al-Hussain coronavirus hospital were continuing after the fire was brought
under control, but thick smoke was making it difficult to enter some of the
burnt wards.

“Raging fires have trapped many patients inside the
coronavirus ward and rescue teams are struggling to reach them,” a health
worker told Reuters before entering the burning building.

Initial police reports suggested that an oxygen tank
explosion inside the hospital’s COVID-19 wards was the likely cause of the
fire, a policeman at the scene of the fire said.

“I heard a big explosion inside the coronavirus wards
and then the fire had erupted very quickly,” said Ali Muhsin, a hospital
guard who was helping to carry wounded patients away from fires.

In April, a fire caused by an oxygen tank explosion at a
COVID-19 hospital in Baghdad killed at least 82 people and injured 110 others.

Health sources said earlier the death toll from Monday’s
fire could rise as many patients were still missing. Two health workers were
among the dead, they said.

Angry relatives gathered in front of the hospital and
clashed with police, setting fire to two police vehicles, a Reuters witness

“Corrupt officials must be held accountable for the
fire and killing innocent patients. Where is my father’s body,” said one
young man as he searched among charred bodies wrapped in blankets in the
hospital’s yard.

Dozens of young demonstrators protested outside the hospital
after the deadly blaze.

“The (political) parties have burned us,” they
shouted in unison.

The lethal blaze also sparked furious calls on social media demanding action and the resignation of top officials.

Local authorities imposed a state of emergency in Dhi Qar governorate, of which Nasiriyah is the capital, and ordered doctors on leave to help treat the injured.

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