MOSCOW, April 3 (Marc Bennetts, RIA Novosti) – At least 17 people died in a fire that swept through a market warehouse in south Moscow early on Tuesday, Russia’s emergencies ministry said.
“We believe they were migrant workers who lived at the market,” a ministry spokesperson said. “We are now trying to determine which republic they came from.”
Unconfirmed media reports said the migrants all hailed from the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan, an impoverished Central Asian state that supplies large numbers of Moscow’s migrant workers. Many work in poor conditions, often illegally.
“The bodies are being identified, but this is difficult as they are all badly burnt,” a Moscow migration service spokesperson said.
The fire began at around 4.50 am (00:50 GMT) in a warehouse at the Kachalovsky market.
“I only saw burnt bodies, hands and legs,” said a woman at the scene looking for friends. “It wasn’t clear who was burnt.”
She also said the victims all lived and worked at the market.
"The death toll will certainly rise," an investigation spokesperson was quoted by Russia's Gazeta.ru online newspaper as saying.
Police said the fire may have been caused by a heater that had been left on as temperatures dropped to around zero Degrees Celsius overnight (32 Degrees Fahrenheit).
Unconfirmed media reports said the victims lived in cramped conditions, sleeping on stacked bunk beds, and that there was no direct exit to the street from their quarters.
"The site was absolutely not suitable for residential use," Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu said after a visit to the market.
The Prosecutor General's Office called on Tuesday afternoon for fire-safety checks to be carried out at all markets in Moscow.
The Emergency Ministry said a check of the market some six weeks ago had revealed a range of safety violations.
Police also say they have opened a criminal investigation into the blaze, but have not yet brought charges against market owners.
Rescue workers are still operating at the scene of the blaze.
The fire broke out shortly after a blaze at a tower at an under-construction skyscraper that will be Europe’s tallest upon completion. Monday evening's fire in the Federation Tower complex was visible across large areas of Moscow. There are no reports of casualties.
Russia has an appalling fire safety record. Some 12,000 people died in fires across the country in 2011, according to emergencies ministry figures. The United States, with a population over twice as large, saw around five times fewer fire-related fatalities.
Migrant workers living in dangerous makeshift accommodation are often the victims of blazes. Seven died in May 2011 in a blaze that engulfed an abandoned building in downtown Moscow.