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Albert Street fire

Inquiry opens into Johannesburg fire that killed 77

Inquiry opens into Johannesburg fire that killed 77
People stand in front of the gutted 80 Albert Street building, where at least 73 people died in a fire, in downtown Johannesburg, South Africa, 01 September 2023. According to Emergency Management Services spokesman Robert Mulaudzi, at least 73 people have died and 52 people were injured in a building fire early morning on 31 August. An investigation into the cause of the fire has been opened as mopping-up operations continue throughout the day. EPA-EFE/KIM LUDBROOK

JOHANNESBURG, Oct 26 (Reuters) - An inquiry opened on Thursday tasked with determining responsibility for a fire in Johannesburg that killed 77 people, throwing a spotlight on gangs that seize abandoned buildings in the city's centre and illegally rent them out.

One of the worst disasters in living memory in South Africa’s economic hub, the blaze broke out on Aug. 31 in a dilapidated building crammed with mostly foreign migrants. Many of the victims were burned beyond recognition.

Residents said at the time of the disaster that the building had been taken over by criminal syndicates who charge fees to occupants, exploiting them but also offering more affordable housing to those who might otherwise be left homeless.

Residents of such buildings also rely on illegal electricity connections, gas burners and – when the country’s rolling power blackouts hit – candles, all of which increase the risk of fires.

Johannesburg is one of the world’s most unequal cities with widespread poverty, joblessness and a longstanding housing crisis. It has about 15,000 homeless people, according to the government of Gauteng, the province that includes the city.

Johannesburg city authorities had leased the gutted building to a charity providing shelter for women in 2016. But the charity ran out of money and stopped operating, residents said

(Reporting by Tannur Anders; Editing by Tim Cocks and John Stonestreet)

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