India court convicts 10 over school fire that killed 94 children 10 years ago

An Indian police officer picks through debris after a fire in a school building in the town of Kumbokonam some 350kms southwest of Chennai on July 16, 2004. -- PHOTO: AFP
An Indian police officer picks through debris after a fire in a school building in the town of Kumbokonam some 350kms southwest of Chennai on July 16, 2004. -- PHOTO: AFP
Indian bystanders look on as fire engines arrive at the scene of a fire at a primary school in Kumbakonam, some 350kms south of Chennai on July 16, 2004. -- PHOTO: AFP
Indian bystanders look on as fire engines arrive at the scene of a fire at a primary school in Kumbakonam, some 350kms south of Chennai on July 16, 2004. -- PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (AFP) - A court in India on Wednesday found a headmistress and nine others guilty over a school fire that killed 94 children a decade ago, the first convictions surrounding the tragedy.

Twenty one teachers, school officials and others were charged with culpable homicide, gross negligence and other offences over the blaze that swept through the school in Kumbakonam town in Tamil Nadu state in 2004.

Prosecutor R. Madhusudhanan said the founder of the private primary school, headmistress and cook were among the 10 found guilty, while another 11 people were acquitted.

"We will appeal before the high court," Mr Madhusudhanan told NDTV of the acquittals.

Parents of the children killed, who were mostly aged between seven and 12, gathered outside the packed court for the long-awaited verdicts, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.

The fire started in the thatched-roofed school's kitchen where lunch was being prepared before spreading quickly to other rooms and floors.

Angry parents and firefighters at the time accused teachers of deserting the children in a rush to save their own lives.

Many of the children killed were trapped in a large classroom which had only one exit. They died after the blazing roof collapsed on top of them, reports have said. Another 18 children suffered serious burns.

The Saraswati Primary School came under severe scrutiny for poor safety standards including a lack of exits and fire-fighting equipment.

Fires at India's overcrowded and dilapidated schools occur frequently, with safety regulations routinely flaunted.

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