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45 dead in refugee camp fire: Thai official

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

The toll from a blaze that swept through a camp in northern Thailand has risen to 45, authorities said Saturday, after hundreds of shelters for refugees from Myanmar were reduced to ashes.

Over 100 people were injured in Friday's fire, which destroyed about 400 homes at the Mae Surin camp in Mae Hong Son province, Thailand's Interior Ministry said as it updated the death toll.

Rescue workers were searching for bodies in the wreckage of the shelters at the remote mountainous camp area, according to a spokesman from the provincial authorities.

"All of (the) dead bodies I seen this morning are burnt beyond recognition," he said, adding that some 2,300 people had been left homeless by the blaze.

Aerial footage of the area shown on Thai television showed huge swathes of the camp completely incinerated.

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.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130323/45-dead-refugee-camp-fire-thai-official