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Iraq wedding fire kills more than 100 as relatives identify bodies

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By Amina Ismail

MOSUL, Iraq () – A fire ripped through a packed wedding hall in northern Iraq late on Tuesday, killing more than 100 people in a Christian town that had survived Islamic State occupation as authorities announced an investigation into the blaze.

Fire fighters searched the charred skeleton of the building in Qaraqoush into Wednesday morning and bereaved relatives gathered outside a morgue in the nearby city of Mosul, wailing and rocking in distress.

“This was not a wedding. This was hell,” said Mariam Khedr, crying and hitting herself as she waited for officials to return the bodies of her daughter Rana Yakoub, 27, and three young grandchildren, the youngest aged just eight months.

Survivors said hundreds of people were at the wedding celebration, which followed an earlier church service, and the fire began about an hour into the event when flares ignited a ceiling decoration as the bride and groom danced.

Nineveh province Deputy Governor Hassan al-Allaq told 113 people had been confirmed dead, with state media putting the death toll at least 100, with 150 people injured.

The fire tore through a large events hall in Hamdaniya after flares were lit during the celebration, causing a fire in the ceiling, Interior Minister Abdul Amir al-Shammari said according to state media.

A video of the event, posted on social media but not yet verified by , appeared to show the flares suddenly catching a glittering ceiling decoration that burst into flames, as sounds of excitement turned rapidly to panic.

Another video that has not yet verified showed a couple dancing in wedding clothes as burning material begins dropping to the floor.

Most residents of Qaraqoush, which is mostly Christian but also home to some members of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, fled the town when Islamic State seized it in 2014. But they returned after the group was ousted in 2017.

CHARRED WRECKAGE

The Interior Ministry said it had issued four arrest warrants for the owners of the wedding hall, state media reported, and President Abdul Latif Rashid called for an investigation.

“We saw the fire pulsating, coming out of the hall. Those who managed got out and those who didn’t got stuck,” said Imad Yohana, a 34-year-old who escaped the inferno.

Video from a correspondent at the site showed firefighters clambering over the charred wreckage of the building, shining lights over smouldering ruins.

Preliminary information indicated that the building was made of highly flammable construction materials, contributing to its rapid collapse, state media said.

Eyewitnesses at the site said the building caught fire at around 10:45 p.m. local time (1945 GMT).

“I lost my daughter, her husband and their 3 year-old. They were all burned. My heart is burning,” a woman said outside the morgue, where bodies lay outside in bags as vehicles came to collect those that had been identified.

A man called Youssef stood nearby with burns covering his hands and face. He said he had not been able to see anything when the fire began and the power cut out. He had grabbed his 3 year-old grandson and managed to get out.

But his wife, Bashra Mansour, in her 50’s, did not make it. She fell in the chaos and died.

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