13 children among 19 dead in Qatar mall fire

A fire that erupted at a nursery in a huge Venice-themed shopping centre in the expat-dominated Qatari capital of Doha on Monday killed 19 people including 13 children, the interior ministry said.

Four of the children who died were Spanish, said a foreign ministry spokeswoman in Madrid, while Paris announced that a three-year-old French child also perished.

It was also feared that two-year old triplets from an expatriate New Zealand family perished in the blaze that ripped through the shopping centre.

The fire left "19 dead, including 13 children, among them seven girls and six boys, in addition to four female teachers," the interior ministry said on its Twitter page, citing Qatar's health minister.

Two members of the civil defence also died in the fire at the capital's Villaggio mall, it said.

The fire broke out at a nursery, state minister for the interior Abdullah bin Nasser Al-Thani told reporters.

"The first report of fire at Villaggio was received by the operations centre at 11:02 am (0802 GMT)," he said, according to the QNA state news agency, pointing out that police and civil defence reached the site within minutes.

He said it became clear that "20 children were at the nursery in the complex and all efforts were concentrated on evacuating those kids," adding that firefighters had to break through the roof to get to trapped children after a staircase to the first-floor nursery collapsed.

Dense smoke inside the mall combined with the fierce temperature from the flames made reaching the trapped children very difficult, a civil defence representative told a news conference.

Health Minister Khaled al-Qahtani said all fatalities were caused by asphyxiation, adding that 17 people were injured, mostly firefighters.

Footage posted online showed black smoke billowing from the shopping centre as emergency vehicles rushed to the scene.

Al-Thani told reporters that the "public prosecution has taken charge of the investigation."

Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani ordered the setting up of a special commission to probe the deadly blaze, the Doha-based Al-Jazeera satellite television station reported.

In Madrid, a foreign ministry spokeswoman said: "Four of the dead children are Spanish," and added that Spanish embassy officials were trying to get more details.

Yamina Benguigui, the minister in charge of French expatriates, announced in Paris that a French child died in the blaze, but she declined to give any further details, including whether the victim was a boy or a girl.

"It is with great sorrow that I confirm that a French child aged three is among the victims," she said in a statement.

New Zealand said it feared three of its citizens -- reportedly two-year-old triplets -- were killed in the fire.

"There are unconfirmed reports that three New Zealanders are dead," a told AFP, adding that the ministry was seeking further details and offering consular assistance to those who needed it.

The New Zealand Herald, without citing sources, reported that the victims were understood to include triplets belonging to an expatriate New Zealand couple.

Villaggio Mall was opened in 2006. The Venetian-styled centre boasts a mall area of 125,000 square metres. Its main feature is a canal on which genuine gondolas ferry visitors through the mall.

Thanks to its wealth of oil and natural gas reserves, combined with a tiny population of less than two million, mostly foreigners, Qatar is one of the world's richest countries in terms of per capita income, coming second only to tiny Liechtenstein.

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