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Death Toll Rises To 23 In Russian Care Home Fire

MOSCOW (Reuters) -- Twenty-three people died in a fire that destroyed a wooden old people's home in northwest Russia, and preliminary evidence indicated the blaze began in the smoking room, officials said on February 1.

Fire gutted the single-story log building in the village of Podyelsk, about 1,000 kilometers northeast of Moscow, on the evening of January 31, the Emergencies Ministry said in a statement on its website,

Ministry photographs showed flames engulfing a dozen windows along the side of the log building in the Komi Republic. Firefighters tackled the blaze amid thick smoke and temperatures as low as minus 35 Celsius.

"Twenty-three people died," said Svetlana Korovchenko, a spokeswoman for the State Prosecutor's Investigative Committee in the republic. Earlier reports said 22 had died.

The fire was extinguished early on February 1, the ministry said. Video footage showed scarred human remains lying amid blackened beams, some covered in icicles.

Three residents were saved and all three staff members on duty survived, and were being questioned by prosecutors.

The Emergencies Ministry said the fire appeared to have started in the building's smoking room.

The blaze raised renewed concern over lax fire safety in Russia. Slow evacuation procedures have been blamed for previous deaths, and fire escapes in Soviet-era buildings can be blocked or locked for security.

Care homes have been particularly vulnerable: 62 patients and staff died in a March 2007 fire in an old people's home in southern Krasnodar, and 32 died in November 2007 near the city of Tula, 200 kilometers south of Moscow.

Inspectors had found fire safety violations at the Komi building before, but nothing was done to rectify them, RIA Novosti news agency quoted Kremlin envoy Ilya Klebanov as saying.

"These problems were systematically ignored and this led to the tragedy," he was quoted as saying after arriving in Komi early on February 1 to investigate the fire.

The Komi Republic is sparsely populated and covered mostly by forests and swamps. It holds significant reserves of oil, coal, diamonds, and bauxite.