Five children under 10 die in France house fire

LILLE, France (AFP) - Five children between the ages of two and 10 died when a fire ravaged their home in northern France overnight while staying with their divorced father who was seriously burned trying to save them, officials said Sunday.

In Saint-Quentin, a town about 130km north-east of Paris, a father who had his children for the weekend jumped out of a first-floor window to go to get help as flames engulfed his house.

The father in his forties attempted to go back into the house with a neighbour but the two were helpless in the face of the massive flames.

"He never thought of himself. He tried to go get help. He burned himself trying to save his son," said the neighbour Olivier Hubeaux.

Around 50 firefighters were dispatched to the fire, but struggled to get in the building due to the "violence" of the flames and the "nearly complete collapse of the first floor", said firefighter Lieutenant Thierry Oberlin.

Masses of smoke also "seriously complicated the work of the firefighters" who found the five bodies of the children, "dead from asphyxiation", said town official Jean-Jacques Boyer.

Autopsies will be carried out on the children on Monday.

Investigators were on Sunday following the assumption that the fire was accidental, but its exact origin had not yet been confirmed.

The father, whose name was not released, was in hospital with serious burns and was only told on Sunday morning by a psychologist that his children had died.

The children's mother arrived on Sunday and was in the care of doctors after receiving the news.

Another deadly fire that killed three people broke out on Saturday evening in an insalubrious seven-storey building housing squatters in the Paris suburb of Aubervilliers.

One person died after jumping out the window, another burnt to death on the third floor and a third died in hospital, officials said, adding that at least 13 people were injured.

A resident told journalists the blaze erupted when someone threw a petrol bomb during a brawl between occupants, but investigators could not immediately confirm the fire was criminal.

Housing Minister Cecile Duflot, who went to the scene, said authorities had not been aware of any "particular warning signs" at the 1920s-era building.

But Ms Evelyne Yonnet, deputy mayor for housing in the suburb north of the French capital, said the building was "very badly managed" and had been inhabited by squatters.

"There had been complaints from residents," she told journalists.

Resident Ali Belmadi said the building, which housed around 60 people when it caught fire, had become "uninhabitable".

"The situation had been getting worse for five years," since squatters arrived, he told AFP.

"There were rats, cockroaches, no security," said another resident named Mr Ghalia.

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