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Malaysia prepares mass burial for school fire victims

Officials said the school was operating without a fire safety permit and license


By Eileen Ng
Associated Press

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysian authorities were preparing Friday a mass burial for 23 mostly young boys who died in a fire at a private Islamic boarding school, which has sparked outrage and renewed calls for proper regulation of religious schools.

At least a dozen graves were dug at an Islamic cemetery outside Kuala Lumpur. Officials have said some of the victims will be buried by their families in their hometowns.

The pre-dawn blaze Thursday at a three-story "tahfiz" school, where Muslim boys study and memorize the Quran, blocked the lone exit to the boys' dormitory, trapping them behind barred windows. Officials said the school was operating without a fire safety permit and license, and that a dividing wall was illegally built on the top floor that blocked the victims from a second exit.

Police have said the victims were 21 boys aged between 13 and 17, and two teachers. Local media said the youngest victim just only 6 years old. Police couldn't be immediately reached to confirm that.

Religious schools, mostly privately run, are not supervised by the Education Ministry because they come under the purview of state religious authorities. Local media reported there are more than 500 registered tahfiz schools nationwide but many more are believed to be unregistered. Data from the Fire Department showed that 1,083 fires struck religious schools in the past two years, of which 211 were burnt to the ground.

Deputy Education Minister P.Kamalanathan said his department has proposed to set up a special committee to get state government consent to place all tahfiz schools under the ministry's supervision to ensure they get safety approval and have an operating permit. He said the ministry had previously urged religious schools to register, but this was on a voluntary basis.

"This is a good opportunity for us to make it a compulsory requirement for religious schools to register with the Education Ministry. Our main concern is safety," he told The Associated Press. "We have no intention to change or interfere with their teachings."

Such a move will not be easy as religion is a sensitive matter in Malaysia, where ethnic Malay Muslims make up about 60 percent of the country's 31 million people.

Firefighters and witnesses have described scenes of horror — first of boys screaming for help behind barred windows as neighbors watched helplessly, and later of burned bodies huddled in corners of the room. Officials initially said they suspected the fire was caused by an electrical short-circuit but later said this wasn't the case. Police said they are still investigating the cause and also the presence of two gas tanks outside the dormitory.

School principal Mohamad Zahid Mahmod has told local media the students were being housed in a temporary building because of renovation work at the main school building. He said they were due to move back at the end of this month. He said the school has been operating for 15 years and registered with the state Islamic religious council. But an official with the state religious council said it had no record of the school.

Many grieving parents and family members have described the tragedy as fate.

Siti Hasmah Mohamad Ali, the wife of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, blamed human error. She said she was briefed by a police officer and was told the dormitory was overcrowded.

"We say that it is God or fate but God does not err ... the ugly and the bad are from us. We have to take that responsibility. Do not say it was God or fate," the nonagenarian said after visiting the school Friday.

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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