French news media are reporting that 17 African immigrants, 14 of them children, died when a fire swept through a dilapidated apartment building in southern Paris early Friday. Latest reports say about 30 people were injured in the blaze.
The fire broke out shortly after midnight in a stairwell of the seven-story building situated in Paris' 13th district, a relatively low-rent area that is home to many Africans and Asians.
It took firemen more than two hours to bring the blaze under control. Investigators are still trying to determine what caused the fire.
LCI television and RTL radio quoted firefighters and witnesses as saying that the blaze trapped many of the building's 130 residents in their sleep.
When firefighters arrived on the scene, they said they could hear children on the building's upper floor screaming for help.
African women wailed and sobbed in grief as the firemen brought out the bodies of dead relatives and neighbors.
French media reported that most of the victims were from Mali, but others were from Senegal, Ivory Coast and Gambia.
The fire came just four months after a similar blaze tore through a Paris hotel that was used by the city authorities to house Africans seeking asylum in France. Twenty-four people, half of them children, died in that fire. Since then, city authorities have been criticized for crowding asylum seekers into unsafe housing.
Survivors of Friday's blaze say there were no fire alarms in the building and that the wooden staircase was in poor condition.
French President Jacques Chirac offered his condolences to the families of the victims, saying the catastrophe has plunged "all of France into mourning."
French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who visited the scene, blamed the high death toll on overcrowded conditions.
He says it is an extremely heavy toll. He says most of the children were asphyxiated. And he describes the disaster as an abominable spectacle. The minister says he has instructed Paris authorities to check all buildings that could be fire hazards.
France feeds, houses and clothes up to 10,000 asylum seekers who are awaiting papers. Many of these immigrants have repeatedly demanded quicker resolutions to their cases and have demonstrated for better treatment.