- Fire kills at least 42, injures another 60
- Iraqi PM holds urgent meeting
- Angry relatives clash with police near hospital
NASSIRIYA, Iraq - At least 42 people were killed and over 60 injured in a fire likely caused by an oxygen tank explosion at a coronavirus hospital in Iraq's southern city of Nassiriya, health officials and police said on Monday.
As rescuers combed the smoke-charred building in search of more bodies, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi held an urgent meeting with ministers and top security commanders to discuss the tragedy, the premier's office said in a brief statement.
Already decimated by war and sanctions, Iraq's healthcare system has struggled to cope with the coronavirus crisis, which has killed 17,592 people and infected more than 1.4 million.
"Health crews carried charred bodies out of the burning hospital while many patients were coughing from the rising smoke," a Reuters reporter at the site of the fire said.
Health officials at Nassiriya said search operations at the al-Hussain coronavirus hospital were continuing after the fire was brought under control, but thick smoke was making it difficult to enter some of the burnt wards.
"Raging fires have trapped many patients inside the coronavirus ward and rescue teams are struggling to reach them," a health worker told Reuters before entering the burning building.
Initial police reports suggested that an oxygen tank explosion inside the hospital's COVID-19 wards was the likely cause of the fire, a policeman at the scene of the fire said.
"I heard a big explosion inside the coronavirus wards and then fire had erupted very quickly," said Ali Muhsin, a hospital guard who was helping carrying wounded patients away from fires.
In April, a fire caused by an oxygen tank explosion at a COVID-19 hospital in Baghdad killed at least 82 people and injured 110 others.
Health sources said earlier the death toll from Monday's fire could rise as many patients were still missing. Two health workers were among the dead, they said.
Angry relatives gathered in front of the hospital and clashed with police, setting fire to two police vehicles, a Reuters witness said.
"Corrupt officials must be held accountable for the fire and killing innocent patients. Where is my father's body," said one young man as he searched among charred bodies wrapped in blankets in the hospital's yard.
(Reporting by a Reuters reporter in Nassiriya, Alaa Swilam and Nayera Abdallah, additional reporting and writing by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, editing by Richard Pullin)