ALGIERS: A fire sparked by an electrical fault killed 18 African migrants, including children, and injured 50 others Tuesday at a camp in Algeria, officials said.
The blaze began before dawn at the camp housing more than 650 migrants in Ouargla, 800 kilometres (500 miles) southeast of Algiers, Colonel Farouk Achour of the emergency services said.
Two children and three women were among the victims, the official Algerian news agency APS said.
Several hours later the nationalities of the victims were still not known.
“The fire broke out at 3:00 am (0200 GMT), killing 18 people and wounding 43,” Achour said by telephone.
A source at the emergency services later put the number of injured at 50.
The president of the Algerian Red Crescent, Saida Benhabiles, said the fire was sparked by a short circuit.
“A short circuit triggered the explosion of a heater and the fire,” Benhabiles told AFP.
She said that 27 people were still being treated in hospital.
The emergency services rushed to the scene to extinguish the fire.
Authorities have opened an investigation.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika also dispatched the interior and health ministers, Noureddine Bedoui and Abdelmalek Boudiaf, to Ouargla to follow up on the situation, APS reported.
The foreign ministry set up a crisis cell to “monitor the situation and identify the victims”, a statement said.
Since a 2011 uprising tipped Libya into chaos, Algeria, which has long borders with Mali and Niger, has become a top North African destination for sub-Saharans seeking a better life.
Benhabiles said that more than 4,000 migrants from Niger have been returned to their country by Algeria since 2014.
She said that 400 more migrants were due to be sent back to Niger from Ouargla, but it was not clear if any of them were from the camp hit by the blaze.
The migrants at the camp were housed in a warehouse set up by the authorities last year where thousands of people, namely from Mali and Niger, have sought refuge.
According to Benhabiles, the migrants are free to come and go from the camp.
“They are constantly on the move. One day there could be 2,000 (migrants) and the next they are 200,” she said.
“We don t lock up people as they do elsewhere.”
Oil-rich Algeria has been a magnet for sub-Saharan Africans who use it as a transit stop as they attempt to reach Europe.
Migrants who first arrive in Algeria often congregate in the deep southern town of Tamanrasset, near the borders with Mali and Niger, before moving to cities further north to eke out a living.
Women and children can often be seen begging on the streets.
Newspapers have carried reports of the harsh conditions faced by migrants in Algeria, including several cases of women being raped.
Algeria passed a law in 2009 stipulating that anyone convicted of illegal migration can face up to six months in detention while people-smugglers can be jailed for up to 20 years.