Ukraine blaze kills 17 in elderly care home

LITOCHKY (Ukraine) (AFP) - Seventeen people died when an unlicenced home for elderly people outside the Ukrainian capital Kiev caught fire in the early hours of Sunday, a fresh tragedy to shake the conflict-riven country.

The fire tore through the two-storey building for the elderly in the village of Litochky, located some 50 kilometres (31 miles) north of Kiev.

"The bodies of 17 people have been found at the site of the fire," the head of Ukraine's state emergencies service, Mykola Chechotkin, told reporters.

"The fire broke out at a privately-owned house," he said, adding the residence did not meet existing regulatory requirements.

More than a dozen body bags were laid out close to the fence of a fire-gutted white brick building before they were loaded onto a truck, an AFP photographer reported from the scene.

National television said police had cordoned off the area.

Citing preliminary information, emergency service said that 35 people were at the home when the fire broke out in the early hours of Sunday.

Eighteen people have been rescued and five of them have been hospitalised, said the service, adding the fire, tackled by more than 150 people, had been extinguished by Sunday morning.

A privately-held television channel said the locals had waited some 40 minutes for the firefighters to arrive and had tried unsuccessfully to rescue the people themselves.

One witness, Vasyl, said a residence employee had rescued one person and returned to help get more people out when a wooden structure crashed down upon her.

- 'Everything was good' -

Locals said the private residence had been built several years ago.

"My heart aches," Tamara, whose relative lived at the shelter, said in televised remarks.

"If you want to know, everything was good there: things were clean, tidy, orderly, she had been looked after, there are no complaints."

It was not immediately clear what caused the blaze but according to one version it might have been sparked by an exploding TV set.

Both President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman expressed condolences to the families of the victims, with the premier also ordering the creation of a special investigative commission.

First deputy head of national police, Vadym Troyan, said a man behind the use of the building as a home for the elderly had already been detained.

In post-Soviet countries such as Ukraine and Russia outdated infrastructure is still in widespread use amid an often lax approach to fire safety.

Such fires often claim the lives of some of the most vulnerable people including the elderly and those with mental illness.

Scores of people also die in house fires each year.

In 2011, 16 people died when a state-run home for the elderly caught fire in the Rivne region in western Ukraine.

Since April 2014, Ukraine has been struggling to contain a pro-Russian insurgency which erupted in the east of the ex-Soviet country after a popular uprising in Kiev ousted a Kremlin-backed president and Moscow annexed the peninsula of Crimea.

The conflict has claimed more than 9,300 lives, with the West and Kiev accusing Russia of fuelling the war and sending in regular troops across the border to prop up the separatists.

Moscow has repeatedly denied the claims despite evidence to the contrary.

In May 2014, several dozen people died in a blaze when a trade union building in the Black Sea port of Odessa was set on fire amid street battles between pro-Kiev and pro-Moscow activists.

Most of those who were killed died from smoke inhalation, while others perished trying to escape by jumping out of windows.

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