Fire at overcrowded Indonesian prison kills 41

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A fire tore through an overcrowded Indonesian prison in the early hours of Wednesday when most inmates were asleep, killing 41 people and injuring dozens of others, an official said.

Firefighters extinguished the blaze -- which was mostly contained within one block that housed prisoners jailed on drug charges -- at around 3 am (2000 GMT Tuesday) and evacuated the victims.

A video released by the Justice Ministry office showed the ceiling collapsing as the fire tore through the block.

"Forty died on the scene and one died on his way to the hospital," said Yasonna Laoly, Indonesia's justice minister, adding that eight were seriously hurt and 31 sustained minor injuries.

Jakarta police chief Fadil Imran earlier told media that 72 had minor injuries.

The police said they are now working to identify the victims after receiving body bags from the rescue team.

"The team hopes that families will come forward to give data on the 41 people to help expedite the process," National Police spokesman Rusdi Hartono said.

Authorities were still investigating the cause of the incident at Tangerang Penitentiary, just outside the capital Jakarta, but suspected an electrical fault may have been to blame.

"Based on early observation, it is suspected (the fire) happened because of a short circuit," Imran said.

Laoly said the prison's electrical system had not been upgraded since it was built over 40 years ago, in 1972.

"The fire spread quickly and there was no time to open some cells... When the guards found out, the fire had already spread, and that's where we found the victims," Laoly added.

Marlinah, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, raced to the local hospital after officials called her home to say her younger brother Muhammad Yusuf had died.

"I just hope the procedure is not complicated so I can bring my brother's body home for burial," she said, tearing up.

Laoly confirmed that there were two foreign nationals, a South African and a Portuguese, among the dead, but did not elaborate on their convictions.

Among the dead, one was convicted on a terrorism charge, one for murder and multiple others on drug charges.

"I would like to convey deepest condolences to the victims' families, I don't want this to happen again," Laoly said.

The South African Embassy in Jakarta confirmed that a national serving jail time on a drugs related case had died.

"We are still waiting for further information to see how we are going to take the matter forward in terms of repatriation of the remains," South African ambassador to Indonesia Hilton Fisher told AFP.

- Over capacity -

The penitentiary department's website showed the jail had just over 2,000 inmates, more than three times as many prisoners than it was designed to hold.

The block where the fire broke out had a maximum capacity of 40 prisoners but housed 120, penitentiary directorate general spokesperson Rika Aprianti told Metro TV.

Overcrowded, unsanitary conditions are common in Indonesian prisons, which contain about 270,000 inmates, and jailbreaks are frequent.

In 2019, at least 100 prisoners escaped from a jail in Riau province, Sumatra after a riot and fire broke out.

In April last year, Indonesia released about 29,000 inmates in a bid to stop Covid-19 from rampaging through a prison system known for its unsanitary conditions.

Fire safety measures are often lacking in the Southeast Asian country of nearly 270 million.

In 2019, 30 people -- including several children -- were killed when a matchstick factory exploded in North Sumatra after a worker accidentally dropped a lighter on some flammable materials.

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