Tragedy in Thailand as 17 girls killed in fire at remote school

Seventeen young girls died and several others were injured when a fire swept through the dormitory of a school for children of hill tribes in northern Thailand, officials say.

The fire started late at night, meaning many of the children at the charity-run Christian school were asleep and unable to escape as flames engulfed the two-storey building.

"The fire broke out at 11pm on Sunday (4am yesterday NZT). Seventeen girls were killed, with five injured," Chiang Rai police Colonel Prayad Singsin told AFP.

Two of the injured were in a serious condition, he said.

"The fire is out, but the cause of the blaze is still under investigation," Prayad said.

A Chiang Rai provincial official said the privately run school is home to girls between 6 and 13 years old.

Those in the dormitory were drawn mainly from the deprived local hill tribes who live too far away to travel to the school.

"There were 38 students inside the dormitory when the fire broke out. Some were not yet asleep so they escaped," the province's deputy governor, Arkom Sukapan, said.

"But others were asleep and could not escape, resulting in the large number of casualties."

Photographs on the school's Facebook page showed firefighters struggling to douse the flames as they tore through the wooden building.

Thailand is home to a patchwork of hill tribes who mainly live in the remote northern area bordering Laos and Burma.

Many are descendants of refugees from Burma and China and exist within subsistence farming communities with their own distinctive dialects and rituals.

They mostly live beyond the reach of state resources, meaning hill tribe children suffer at school, as well as in their health and development.

Poverty means adults are easy prey for drug gangs who pay them to smuggle narcotics - including heroin and amphetamines - across the zone, known as the "Golden Triangle".

Thai security forces frequently engage in deadly gun battles with hill tribe drug mules in the region. That link engenders prejudice among many Thais and hill tribes are often portrayed negatively in the media.

However, Chiang Rai town and the surrounding hills are popular with foreign tourists for hiking and adventure sports.

- AFP

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