Fire kills 26 in Chinese bar on Christmas

A Christmas Day fire at an unlicensed bar killed at least 26 people and injured eight in a Chinese city near Hong Kong, the government said on Monday.

The fire broke out at 11pm local time on Sunday evening in Zhongshan, which abuts the former Portuguese colony of Macau west of Hong Kong, the official Xinhua news agency said.

At least 26 people were killed, Xinhua said. It said the cause of the blaze was under investigation.

”This small bar is an illegal business inside a restaurant,” said an official in the propaganda office of Zhongshan’s Communist Party branch.

”The bar owner has been detained for investigation,” said the official, who wouldn’t give his name.

Police and fire officials in Zhongshan refused to release any information.

Zhongshan is part of the booming Pearl River Delta region around Hong Kong whose factories form the heart of China’s export-driven manufacturing industries.

Witnesses quoted by Hong Kong Cable TV said there was an explosion before the bar fire. Police were shown cordoning off the building and nearby roads as debris was cleaned up.

Many of the injured suffered severe burns and were sent to a local hospital, Cable TV reported.

”This was a popular bar. Lots of people went there,” said a woman who works at a nearby restaurant and refused to give her name. ”It must have been crowded last night because of the Christmas celebration.”

It is the second time in five years that China has suffered a deadly Christmas Day fire.

In 2000, a fire blamed on a welding accident tore through a disco in the central city of Luoyang, killing 309 people who were celebrating the holiday.

A court sentenced 23 people held responsible for the disaster to up to 13 years in prison. Angry residents staged a march in Luoyang and some protested in Beijing, demanding the prosecution of local safety officials.

China has suffered a string of such fires in shopping malls, cinemas and other public places despite repeated official promises to improve safety. Many are blamed on disregard for safety rules or lack of required fire escapes.

Last month, a fire blamed on an electrical problem at a hospital in the north-eastern city of Liaoyuan killed 39 people and forced patients to jump from fourth-floor windows. — Sapa-AP

AP correspondent Helen Luk in Hong Kong contributed to this report

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