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Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport Fire

Detainees killed in Dutch blaze

Officials say the emergency services acted quickly
At least 11 people have died, and 15 are in hospital, after a three-hour blaze in a detention centre at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport.
The blaze broke out soon after midnight in the centre, which houses illegal immigrants and drug smugglers awaiting deportation from the Netherlands.

Some of the 350 prisoners at the centre said guards were slow to respond to their cries for help.

Police said they were looking for some detainees who may have escaped.

Witnesses described flames licking from the windows of the prefabricated complex, which is sited only yards from one of the runways on the east side of the airport.

Our throats started hurting. We kicked, we screamed, we rang the bell of course. And then panic broke out

Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende said: "It's terrible if you hear about a fire of such size, 11 people dead.

"Our thoughts are with the families of the victims and the wounded."

The cause of the blaze is still unknown.

"The 11 who died were detainees," said local Mayor Michel Bezuijen, but their nationalities and identities were not released.

He said an independent inquiry would be set up, as well as the regular judicial inquiry, while a European prisoners' rights group said it would also investigate.

MPs said they wanted an inquest to look at safety issues.

Forty-three people were said to be in the wing that caught fire, where two dozen cells held up to two people each.

There were some firefighters and police among the injured.

One detainee at the centre told Dutch radio that guards had initially ignored their warnings of a fire and their banging on the cell doors.

"We remained locked inside. We were shouting at the top of our voices until we were hoarse," he said.

Speaking on Dutch television, a detainee described the growing panic.

"First they said there was no problem, and they just kept us locked up," he said.

"Our throats started hurting. We kicked, we screamed, we rang the bell of course. And then panic broke out."

A spokesman for the prosecutors' office, Martin Bruinsma, told AFP news agency the emergency services had acted "very quickly", but that cell doors could only be opened manually, one at a time.

The Dutch National Refugee Council criticised conditions at the centre, particularly the lack of an automatic system to open cell doors.

Some of the detainees have been transferred to other detention centres in the Netherlands.

Helicopters were being used to search for several who are believed to have escaped from the centre. Police said three were arrested trying to escape.

The complex is used for people arriving by plane who are refused entry to the Netherlands.

Hundreds of cocaine smugglers, mostly from the Netherlands Antilles and other parts of the Caribbean, are detained at the airport every year, along with illegal immigrants awaiting deportation.

The Netherlands has one of the toughest immigration policies in Europe, and is in the process of deporting 26,000 asylum seekers who have been refused the right to stay.

Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk, visiting the site on Thursday, said: "It's awful. I offer my condolences to the families."

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