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Fire destroys UNHCR tents worth US$1 million in Syria depot


Fire destroys UNHCR tents worth US$1 million in Syria depot

A fire broke out early Thursday in a UNHCR warehouse near Damascus, destroying tents and setting back the agency's operations in Syria.
18 October 2007
Firefighters attempt to control the blaze.

DOUMA, Syria, October 18 (UNHCR) - A fire raced through UNHCR warehouses near Damascus on Thursday, destroying tents worth about US$1 million and setting back the refugee agency's operations in the Syrian capital.

UNHCR staff evacuated hundreds of Iraqi refugees from a registration centre adjacent to the three warehouses in Douma, located some 15 kilometres from Damascus, but there were no reports of injuries aside from some cases of smoke inhalation and shock.

"This is a serious setback for UNHCR's operations in Damascus," said Laurens Jolles, UNHCR's representative in Syria. "We have worked hard to get the centre up and running to register and assist large groups of Iraqis. We will work around the clock to re-establish the services."

Firefighters brought the blaze under control about six hours after it started and police were trying to determine the cause. UNHCR staff on site said one warehouse had been completely destroyed and a second one badly damaged. But all the stock in the second warehouse was saved.

A UNHCR supply officer said almost 6,000 canvas tents, 1,400 lightweight tents and one Rubbhall were destroyed in the blaze. He estimated their value at just over US$1 million. Jolles said UNHCR planned to replace the destroyed stocks.

The registration area was also okay, but there was some smoke damage and the hall was flooded with water. A UNHCR database with refugee information and all refugee documents were removed safely. The registration team hoped to resume work on Monday, but this would depend on a damage assessment report.

"Emergency services arrived on the scene within minutes of the fire starting," said a UNHCR spokeswoman, Sybella Wilkes. "By that time our staff had already evacuated several hundred refugees who were being registered close by, along with 40 UNHCR staff."

The first warehouse collapsed in the afternoon, with thick smoke filling the other warehouses and billowing over the complex. It could be seen from many kilometres away.

More than 80,000 Iraqi refugees have been registered in the Douma centre this year. Tens of thousands of them have been referred for assistance, including food distribution for 35,000 refugees. There are some 1.4 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, which urgently needs foreign assistance to shoulder the burden.

By Dalia al-Achi in Douma, Syria