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Guatemala shelter fire kills teenage girls

Following riots to protest mistreatment, residents at a shelter in Guatemala set fires, killing and injuring dozens of people. The home for abused and homeless minors had repeatedly been accused of abuse.

As of Friday, at least 35 girls had died as a result of a fire on Wednesday at a shelter for children and adolescents near Guatemala City. Dozens of people were injured and brought to local hospitals, several of them with severe burns.

"What happened is extremely serious, and even more so for the fact that it could have been avoided," Anabella Morfin, Guatemala's solicitor general, told reporters. "This should never have happened."

The fire was reportedly started by residents of the state-run Virgin of the Assumption Safe Home, which houses minors under the age of 18 who were victims of abuse or homeless, or who had completed juvenile detention and had nowhere else to go.

In the dormitories for adolescent girls, mattresses were set ablaze on Wednesday morning following riots and escape attempts, it was reported. Occupants had begun revolting against alleged sexual abuse by staff, poor food and conditions at the home, and dozens had attempted to flee the shelter. Late on Tuesday, riot police had been sent in to quell the unrest.

"This is a painful situation," Nery Ramos, the head of Guatemala's national police, told reporters.

He said that a group of young people who had been isolated by police were responsible for the fire. Ramos also told reporters that authorities were investigating whether this group had also orchestrated an escape effort.

Jorge de Leon, Guatemala's human rights prosecutor, said younger children fled the home because they were being abused by older residents. "According to what they say, the bigger kids have control and they attack them constantly," de Leon wrote in a statement.

Abuse accusations against shelter

The Virgin of the Assumption Safe Home has been accused of mistreatment, abuse and the sexual trafficking of minors several times in the past few years. The shelter is severely overcrowded, housing hundreds more than its 400-person capacity. In 2013, a 14-year old girl was killed at the facility by another resident, investigators said.

Overcrowding is a common problem in public institutions in Guatemala, including in particular prisons. Even outside of shelters, growing up can be tough in the Latin American country with the highest rates of child malnutrition, where street gangs often prey on children and teenagers in poorer neighborhoods.

Guatemala's prosecutor for upholding children's rights, Hilda Morales, told reporters she was asking for the shelter to be shut down due to welfare authorities' inability to manage it.

"We are going to ask for the immediate closure of the center, and attribute administrative and criminal responsibility against those in charge of the center for not fulfilling their duty," she said.

Following the fire, distraught relatives waited outside the walled facility to find out whether their children had been killed or injured. Many of them accused the authorities of abuse and mismanagement.

Guatemala's Congress held a minute of silence for the victims of the fire before demanding those in charge of the center be dismissed.

mb/se (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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