Guatemala begins burying 36 girls killed in shelter fire

Edgar CALDERON, Henry MORALES ARANA
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Marta Lidia Garcia (C) cries by the coffin of her 17-year-old daughter, Siona Hernandez, who died in a fire at a state-run shelter, during the wake on March 10, 2017, south of Guatemala City

Guatemala on Friday held the first funeral for 36 teenage girls killed in a horrific fire in a government-run shelter at the center of allegations of sexual abuse and other mistreatment by staff.

Flowers and prayers filled a small church in Ciudad Peronia, a southern neighborhood of Guatemala City, as family and friends said farewell to Siona Hernandez, 17.

She was among those who died in the blaze Wednesday in the Virgin of the Assumption Safe Home for children in San Jose Pinula, a village just east of the capital.

The fire broke out in the girls' living quarters of the walled facility, killing 19 immediately. The other 17 died in hospital of horrific burns.

Another 10 patients are in critical condition, with burns to all of their body and severe damage to their lungs and throat.

Few are expected to live, according to the director of the San Juan Dios Hospital, Antonio Villeda.

All of the victims were girls aged between 14 and 17.

Siona Hernandez had been sent to the shelter under court order after running away from home. She shared a dormitory with others in the same situation, or girls taken in to escape domestic abuse at home.

"We are all appalled. We still cannot believe this. What we see is there was a criminal hand in those looking after this area," the local pastor, Jose Alpirez, told AFP.

"This cannot go unpunished. The law must be applied," he said.

- Public anger -

The blaze was believed to have been set by girls protesting dire conditions they were subjected to inside.

Human rights prosecutors say the girls were locked up together, unable to escape the flames.

An investigation has been launched to determine the exact circumstances and criminal responsibility.

In the meantime, President Jimmy Morales has sacked the shelter's director and ordered the facility temporarily closed.

The shelter was built to house 400 children, but nearly twice that many lived there.

The 750 children who survived the fire have been sent to other public and private shelters. Some have been given to families for care.

UNICEF, the UN children's fund, has called for an end to the systematic institutionalization of minors in the country.

Public criticism has swelled against Morales' government over the tragedy.

Social networks feature posts blaming Morales for the "massacre."

And on Thursday, protesters left dolls on piles of charcoal in a demonstration in front of the presidential palace.

Although the facility was under the supervision of the social welfare ministry, Morales has not fired that minister, Carlos Rodas. He said he was awaiting the results of the investigation.

"I'm hoping the law falls on those responsible, because it's not right what happened," said Sebastian Garcia, Siona Hernandez's uncle, as he tearfully attended the funeral.

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