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Suspicious fires raze slums

Suspicious fires raze slums

Thousands of the capital's poorest residents lost their homes within 36 hours when

huge fires raced through two squatter areas. The first fire at Bassac commune started

in the afternoon of November 26 and destroyed more than 2,200 homes.

One man died in the second fire, which began late the following evening in the predominantly

Vietnamese area of Chhbar Ampoe across the Monivong Bridge. Almost 1,000 homes were

lost there.

The fires coincided with the state visit of Vietnam's President Tran Duc Luong. The

Agence-France Presse office in Hanoi reported December 6 that Western diplomats in

the city believed the fires were deliberately lit to send him a message.

An attaché at the Vietnamese Embassy, Chu Dong Loc, said the embassy was awaiting

the results of the police investigation. He said the embassy hoped the authorities

would undertake "appropriate measures to relocate residents".

"The police have a duty and an obligation to investigate the fire," he

said. "So far there is no evidence that the fire was deliberately coinciding

with the President's visit."

Although some victims of the second blaze at Chhbar Ampoe spoke of arson, Muong Khim,

Phnom Penh municipality's deputy chief commissioner, said the police investigation

showed both fires were accidental.

"[The first fire was caused by] two kids who were at home playing with matches.

Because this season is the windy season, the fire trucks could not help much. Also

there was no access road," said Khim.

"[The second fire] was caused by an explosion of a small gas cooker. According

to the investigation, the witnesses living around there said the fire started at

the home of a Vietnamese man who died in the blaze."

Much of the responsibility for helping the victims will fall on the urban poverty

reduction project, funded by the British government's aid and development agency,

the Department for International Development (DfID) and the UNDP.

Mark Mallalieu, head of DfID South-East Asia in Bangkok, said the organization would

examine any new evidence that came to light. He said DfID's guiding principle was

that its work should address the needs of the poor.

"That guiding principle would govern our response. Certainly in relation to

our financial interest in this project, we clearly want to understand what happened

and what the implications are," he said.

"What we need to do is to establish as full an understanding as we can about

what happened and what the appropriate DfID response should be," said Mallalieu.

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