Teens nabbed over Bejing Web cafe blaze
BEIJING, China -- Two teenage boys have been arrested on suspicion of starting the Internet cafe fire that killed 24 people in a Beijing university district over the weekend, according to officials.
A 13-year-old whose surname was Zhang and a 14-year-old named Song used gasoline to ignite the deadly blaze at the illegal cafe, an official statement said.
"I burned the Lanjisu (Cyber Cafe) with gasoline because they would not let us play there," Reuters reported one of the boys as telling police interrogators on Wednesday.
Beijing television showed the boy making the admission to police.
The 14-year-old could be tried for murder and arson, a Beijing lawyer told Reuters.
"But considering his age, the sentence may be more lenient than with adults. It's unlikely he will get the death penalty."
The statement said the boys set the Internet cafe ablaze after a dispute with workers there two weeks ago. Apart from the 24 people who perished, another 13 people were injured in the fire, China's state-run Xinhua news agency said.
The mayor of Beijing Monday closed down the city's booming Internet cafes until the government improves safety standards. Cyber cafes in other cities across China were also ordered shut.
Cafes that meet safety and other standards will be allowed to reapply for licenses, while those found lacking will be closed permanently and their property confiscated.
There are around 2,400 cyber cafes in the Chinese capital, of which perhaps only 200 would meet all safety standards.
'Opium for kids'
On Wednesday, Beijing vice mayor Liu Zhihua compared Cyber cafes to "opium for kids," reflecting articles in state newspapers which quoted parents as saying they were sick of seeing their children wasting their days and nights surfing the Internet.
"A lot of parents are saying that setting up Web cafes near schools is like offering children opium," Reuters reported Liu as saying on the sidelines of a news conference.
Internet cafes, many open 24 hours, are immensely popular in China, which says it has 33.7 million Internet users but where many families can't afford to buy a computer.
The biggest cafes, especially near universities, have hundreds of terminals.
The cafe which caught fire is located in Haidian, a northern Beijing suburb frequented by students attending the area's many universities.
Sunday's blaze was Beijing's deadliest since 1949, when the communist People's Republic of China was founded, the agency said.
A neighbor said he was awakened by screams and saw smoke pouring from windows of the cafe, on the second floor of a two-story cement building.
Neighbors helped one person escape, but iron bars over the windows prevented others from getting out, he said.
"There were people shouting 'Help me, help me,"' said the man, who gave only his surname, Liu.
Neighbors later pried the bars off one window and pulled out several victims who appeared to be dead, Liu said.
Liu said the cafe had operated 24 hours a day and drew large numbers of students by offering cheaper Internet access rates late at night. Liu and other witnesses said the cafe had room for more than 40 customers.
Haidian, in Beijing's northwest, is the site of Beijing University and Tsinghua University, two of China's most prestigious schools.
The area has a large student population and is the center of China's growing computer and high-technology industries.
Fatal fires are common in China, where operators of bars, movie theaters, Internet cafes and other businesses often ignore safety rules or fail to provide emergency exits.
But they are less frequent in Beijing, the capital, where regulations are more rigorously enforced.
In December 2000, a fire at a discotheque in the central city of Luoyang killed 309 people. Investigators blamed the high death toll on locked emergency exits.
Twenty-three people held responsible were sentenced to prison terms of up to 13 years.
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