Police investigating arson claim in German blaze

( dpa ) - Police were looking into reports Tuesday that a fire which claimed nine lives in an apartment block housing Turkish immigrants may have been started deliberately.

"We're working intensively on the case and following up every lead," a police spokesman said after media reports quoted a young girl as saying she saw a man setting fire to a pram in the building before it went up in flames on Sunday afternoon.

Prosecutor Lothar Liebig said there were "no facts that pointed in a specific direction." The blaze could have been caused by a technical defect or might have a criminal background, he said.

Police said unidentified arsonists targeted the building in August 2006, throwing a cobblestone and two firebombs into an empty pub on the ground floor, causing minor damage but no injuries.

Some 60 persons were injured in Sunday's blaze, which happened in the industrial city of Ludwigshafen shortly after a carnival parade had end.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul called for a "meticulous investigation," referring to previous arson attacks by neo-Nazis that have targeted Turkish immigrants in Germany.

Germany has agreed to allow Turkish experts to join in the investigation, following a request by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble.

Unconfirmed reports said Erdogan, who is due to confer with Chancellor Angela Merkel and open a major security conference in Munich on Friday, might pay a visit to the scene.

Officials said it could take several days before the cause of the blaze is established. Initial investigations by a 50-member team indicated the fire broke out in the wooden stairwell and quickly engulfed the low-rent, four-storey structure.

A post-mortem of the victims, among them five children and a pregnant woman, showed eight had died from smoke inhalation. Another woman leaped to her death from an upper floor trying to escape the flames.

The fire brigade held up safety blankets, "but in their panic some people missed them and landed on the ground," one witness said.

"People jumping from the top floor hit the asphalt like a bullet," a fire officer was quoted as saying by the newspaper Die Welt.

Television cameras caught a distraught father dropping his small child into the into the arms of rescuers standing below.

Fire officers, who inspected the smouldering ruins of the building on Tuesday, said it was unlikely that more victims were inside. A sniffer dog found no trace of bodies.

German Social Democrat leader Kurt Beck, who is prime minister of the state where Ludwigshafen is located, said Monday there was no indication of a racially motivated attack.

The chairman of Germany's Association of Turkish Communities, Kenan Kolat, said he had spoken to the girl who claimed to have seen an arsonists. She made a credible impression on him, he said.

Guests had been in the upper apartments to watch the carnival parade and it took many hours for police to list all the occupants and realize the scale of the incident.

Eva Lohse, mayor of the city, cancelled the remaining two days of carnival celebrations in the city. Just before the blaze, 250,000 people had been cheering and laughing on nearby streets.

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