Pakistan court bails fire factory owners

Three factory-owners facing murder charges over the deaths of 289 people in a huge fire in Karachi handed themselves in to court Friday as Pakistan police described the moment the flames took hold.

Workers burned to death or suffocated in the massive blaze that engulfed Ali Enterprises clothing factory, which made ready-to-wear clothes for export to Western retailers, on Tuesday evening.

Investigators are studying a crucial two-minute section of footage filmed by six closed-circuit cameras inside the factory as the fire broke out and caused terror among workers in a matter of seconds.

Police registered a murder case over the fire on Thursday, saying the owners -- Abdul Aziz, Mohammad Arshad and Shahid Bhaila -- had shown "utter negligence" about workers' safety.

The trio, who have not been arrested, appeared in the high court in Larkana, 450 kilometres (300 miles) north of Karachi, and were granted "protective bail" for eight days, their lawyer Aamir Mansoor Qureshi told AFP.

He said they went to the court because they feared for their lives in Karachi, a metropolis of 18 million people which came to a standstill on Thursday as a mark of respect for the victims of Pakistan's worst ever industrial fire.

A court official confirmed the ruling, which means the owners cannot be arrested before September 22, and said the judge had ordered them to appear in court in Karachi before the bail expires.

They have also been barred from leaving Pakistan.

The only exit from the factory was through a door with an electronic lock which failed when the fire disrupted the power supply, senior police official Niaz Khoso told AFP, leaving workers trapped.

"The fire basically erupted on the first floor, where a group of people were sorting out the finished material," Khoso told AFP.

"A large quantity of finished garments are piled on the floor and workers are calmly busy in their work," he said, after reviewing the camera footage.

Sparks are then seen coming from electricity cables, which he said were of poor quality and installed unusually low in the walls.

"At 18:56 the images of fire come on screen. Workers start running helter-skelter as everything gets murky with the smoke amid the sparks of fire," he said.

"At the same time, people on the rest of the building get sense of the fire and start running for safety and then probably cameras are destroyed one-by-one and the footage abruptly ends."

The tragedy has prompted anger in Pakistan over the dismal safety standards endured by industrial workers, who toil in dangerous working conditions for poor wages, often to produce goods for export to Western customers.

Ali Enterprises produced ready-to-wear clothes for companies in Europe and North America, though precisely which brands it supplied remains unclear.

"The fire is definitely accidental, but what is more important and criminal is that the owners had given no exits to the workers to get saved in case of emergency," Khoso said.

"The only gate from where people come and go had electronic locking, which failed to open when fire disrupted the power supply."

The industries minister for Sindh, the province of which Karachi is the capital, submitted his resignation on Friday to avoid any suggestion of interference in the investigation into the fire.


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