Prague, 2 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Reports say exploding gas canisters are probably to blame for what officials are calling Paraguay's worst national tragedy in decades. As many as 700 people may have been in a multilevel supermarket and office complex outside the capital Asuncion yesterday when a fire broke out, killing 296 people.
Police are reportedly investigating allegations the owner of the supermarket ordered the doors locked during the blaze so that customers could not leave without paying for their goods.
Reports described panic as explosions rang out and the fire spread rapidly through the supermarket and a parking garage below. Some victims reportedly died trapped in their cars.
News cameras broadcast this plea yesterday from a woman searching for her son, who worked at the supermarket: "I ask the people who are seeing me right now that I am desperate, and I need information on my son. He's not in any of the hospitals I've contacted."
Rescue teams were hampered by the continuing high heat in the building and the risk that more canisters could explode.
"At this moment, there are so many things being said, but the reality of the situation is that right now, we are only in the phase of search and rescue," said Hugo Valdez, the head of the volunteer fire department.
Authorities have arrested the owner of the supermarket amid allegations that during the blaze he ordered the supermarket's doors to be locked to prevent customers from stealing.
Authorities have arrested the owner of the supermarket amid allegations that during the blaze he ordered the supermarket's doors to be locked to prevent customers from stealing. Prosecutors said today that he faces possible homicide charges.
Local reports said firefighters arriving at the scene found at least one of main doors locked. Agencies cite witnesses as saying they were prevented from leaving the store.
Supermarket officials are strongly denying that they ordered the doors locked. Reuters quoted a spokesman for the supermarket, Julio Giminez, as saying everyone who could have escaped the blaze eventually did so.
Paraguayan President Nicanor Duarte has traveled to the scene of the disaster and declared three days of national mourning for the victims.
Paraguay -- a poor country of 6 million people -- was reported ill-equipped to cope with the magnitude of the tragedy. Doctors and emergency workers from neighboring Argentina were making their way to the scene. Argentine authorities have made hospitals available to the victims, and the Argentine Air Force is standing by to provide aid.
AP reported it was the worst tragedy in Paraguay since a failed military insurrection in 1947 left some 8,000 people dead.
The president of the national congress, Miguel Carrizosa, went further, saying it "was the biggest national tragedy since the Chaco War," referring to a 1932-35 war with neighboring Bolivia that killed thousands on both sides.