Bangladesh hunts owner after factory inferno

DHAKA, Nov 27, 2012 (AFP) -Bangladeshi police hunted a fugitive factory boss Tuesday after claims that workers making cheap clothes for Western firms including Walmart were told that an alarm for a deadly fire was a routine drill.
Ahead of the first mass burials for the fire's 110 victims, Bangladesh held a day of mourning. Green and red national flags flew at half mast alongside black flags on top of government offices and the country's 4,500 garment factories.
Two government inquiries have already been set up to try to establish the exact cause of the fire, which broke out late Saturday at the Tazreen factory, some 30 kilometres (20 miles) outside the capital Dhaka.
It was the worst ever fire to hit Bangladesh's garment industry, which employs three million and is the mainstay of the poverty-stricken country's economy.
Dhaka police chief Habibur Rahman said officers wanted to interrogate Tazreen's owner Delwar Hossain about alleged violations of building rules after inspectors found the nine-storey factory only had permission for three floors.
"We shall also quiz him about allegations from survivors that his managers did not allow the workers to leave the factory when the fire broke out," Rahman told AFP.
"As the smoke spread, the managers even told the workers that it was a fire drill, nothing to be afraid of."
Police had opened a murder investigation as a result of criminal negligence at the plant, Rahman added.
"We have launched a search for him and the managers but so far we have not been able to trace them."
The search was launched after protests on Monday by thousands of workers who blocked roads and held marches in the Ashulia industrial area, where the factory is based, demanding justice and an end to death-trap working conditions.
Bangladesh has emerged as the world's second-largest clothes exporter with overseas garment sales topping $19 billion last year, or 80 percent of national exports.
Forty percent of Bangladesh's industrial workforce is employed in the sector, but conditions are often basic and safety standards low.
More than 600 garment workers have now been killed in dozens of workplace fires since 2006, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign, an Amsterdam-based textile rights group.
But none of the owners have so far faced prosecution for poor safety conditions and campaigners say Western garment firms whose clothes are made in Bangladesh hide behind flimsy safety audits to help drive down costs.
After European chain C&A and Hong Kong-based Li & Fung had earlier confirmed they had orders at Tazreen, the US retail giant Walmart has now acknowledged some of its products were made there.
"A supplier subcontracted work to this factory without authorisation and in direct violation of our policies," Walmart said in a statement issued on Monday. "Today, we have terminated the relationship with that supplier.
"The fact that this occurred is extremely troubling to us, and we will continue to work across the apparel industry to improve fire safety education and training in Bangladesh."
Witnesses of Saturday night's blaze told how desperate workers, most of them women, cried for help and several leaped to their deaths from upper floors as they tried to escape.
Fifty-five victims, whose bodies could not be identified by their relatives, are due to be buried en masse Tuesday at a state graveyard after a funeral.
"We kept the bodies at a hospital morgue for the last two days for the relatives to identify them. But they were charred beyond recognition," Dhaka district commissioner Yusuf Harun told AFP.
"We have kept their DNA samples so that we can identify their relatives for compensation."

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