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The death toll from the casino fire in Cambodia has risen to 26 as the search was called off

Rescue workers finished searching the charred ruins of a Cambodian hotel and casino complex on Friday after the death toll from a fire that forced people to jump from windows rose to 26. Hundreds of people were believed to have been at the Grand Diamond City location, located in the northwestern town of Poipet within sight of the Thai border when the fire broke out late Wednesday night. “The death toll is 26, including 21 Thai nationals,” said Sek Sokhom, director of the information department of Banteay Meanchey province. Some of the recovered bodies were found in stairs, he said. Sek Sokhom said the search was over because “rescuers have reached all parts where we thought there might be casualties”. Grieving families told AFP they struggled to understand the magnitude of the disaster. One mother said she couldn’t eat because she was so overwhelmed by the loss of her son. Photos and video of the scene showed people huddled on window sills to escape the flames, with a rescue worker telling AFP he saw people jump from roofs in desperation as the blaze approached. Hundreds of Cambodian soldiers and police, along with volunteers from Thailand, worked through the day, smoke still billowing from the building, before calling off the search when night fell. The search had been delayed by fears that the building was unsafe, a volunteer from the Thai rescue group the Poh Teck Tung Foundation described it as unstable. Many of the injured have been taken to Thailand for treatment. Thai officials said more than 50 had been hospitalized, 13 of them in critical condition. – ‘Overwhelmed’ – Grieving mother Keerati Keawwat said her 23-year-old son was in the building when the fire broke out. “He got stuck inside and couldn’t get out,” the 55-year-old told AFP from a makeshift information center. “I can’t eat and only slept an hour,” she said. “I’m too overwhelmed.” ‘Neung’, a 42-year-old casino employee who gave only his nickname, said he slept in the complex but managed to escape, although his father was not so lucky. He said his father, who was gambling at the casino, managed to get two women to safety. “But to help them, he expended a lot of energy and was suffocated by the smoke,” he said. His father was then locked in a room with others, but was still able to make calls until about 3 am. “Then I lost connection with my father and lost hope,” he said. “Now all I want is his body.” The complex is one of several in Poipet, a border town popular with Thais who face strict restrictions on gambling in their country. Tuk-tuk driver Thitinun Thongging told AFP the terrifying blaze was indicative of loose safety standards in Poipet. “I’m worried about everything there. It’s getting out of hand,” says the 48-year-old, who lives on the Thai side. Thailand’s foreign ministry said it was working closely with Cambodian authorities to locate and identify Thais involved in the incident and to send additional equipment, consular officers and a police attaché to Poipet. Gambling by Cambodians is also illegal, but numerous casino-filled hot spots have sprung up along the border with Thailand and Vietnam. – ‘A tragedy’ – A Grand Diamond City employee, who asked not to be identified because it could affect her job, told AFP she was working on the third floor of the 17-story hotel wing when the fire started. “It wasn’t a huge fire at first,” she said, but soon she and a colleague had to flee outside. “It quickly became huge,” she said, still shaken by the death and destruction. Other casino employees said they had little choice but to keep working despite their fears. “I will continue my work because it is not easy to look for other work,” said a 30-year-old who worked in a nearby gambling establishment. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Friday offered his condolences to the families of the victims, calling it a “tragedy” and promising that fire engines would be placed at all tall buildings. There has yet to be any indication of the cause of the blaze, the latest in a string of blazes that have hit popular nightspots in a region that has long had concerns about lax safety standards. ss-arc-rbu/pbt

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