Rescuers reach Thai refugee camp after deadly blaze

Thai rescue workers picked through the ashes of hundreds of shelters for Myanmar refugees Saturday after a ferocious blaze swept through a camp in northern Thailand killing 35 people. Around 100 people were injured in Friday's fire at the Mae Surin camp in Mae Hong Son province, provincial governor Narumol Paravat told AFP by telephone, giving a reduced toll from the 45 dead previously stated. "The final death toll is 35. There was confusion in the body count," she said. Only a handful of homes survived the inferno, according to an AFP photographer at the scene, who said some refugees had already started cutting bamboo to build new shelters. Aerial footage of the area shown on Thai television showed huge swathes of the camp completely incinerated. The blaze is believed to have destroyed 400 houses and left over two thousand people homeless at the remote mountainous camp. "All of (the) dead bodies I saw this morning are burnt beyond recognition," a spokesman from the provincial authorities told AFP. Authorities believe the fire was sparked by an unattended cooking flame. A local district official said hot weather combined with strong winds had caused the fire to spread quickly among the thatched bamboo shelters. Women, children and the elderly are believed to make up the majority of the victims. The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said it was rushing to provide plastic sheets, bed mats and other resources to make emergency shelters. "We are deeply saddened by this tragic incident and doing what we can to provide instant relief," said the UNHCR's Thailand representative Mireille Girard in a statement. The Interior Ministry's Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Bureau said a school, clinic and two food warehouses had also been destroyed. The Thai government pledged an investigation into the fire at the camp, which was set up in 1992 and houses roughly 3,500 refugees. Ten camps strung out along the Thai-Myanmar border are home to a total of about 130,000 people, who first began arriving in the 1980s. Many of the refugees have fled conflict zones in ethnic areas of Myanmar, also known as Burma. Families often live cheek-by-jowl in simple bamboo-and-thatch dwellings. Many of the camp's residents have been registered with the UN as refugees, and an ongoing resettlement programme has allowed tens of thousands to move to other countries. After a new quasi-civilian government replaced the long-ruling junta in Myanmar two years ago, Thailand announced it wanted to shut the border camps, raising concern among their residents. But so far they have been allowed to stay and the Thai government has stressed that it will only send them back when it is safe to do so. Many of the refugees are from Myanmar's eastern Karen state, where a major rebel group, the Karen National Union (KNU) signed a ceasefire deal with the new regime last year after decades of civil war. Vast numbers of people fled the former Myanmar junta's counter-insurgency campaign, which rights groups say deliberately targeted civilians, driving them from their homes, destroying villages and forcing them to work for the army. Years of war have left the Karen region littered with landmines while development has been held back, leaving dilapidated infrastructure and threadbare education and health services. Hundreds of homes were destroyed at a different border camp in February last year by a fire that the authorities also blamed on cooking.