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Indian relatives grieve as bodies of 45 Kuwait fire victims return

Asia
 Policemen stand guard as mourning relatives await coffins of the deceased arriving on an Indian Air Force plane from Kuwait at the Cochin International Airport in Kochi on June 14, 2024. [AFP]

Grieving families kept a solemn vigil in the terminal of an Indian airport Friday as the bodies of dozens of migrant workers killed in a Kuwait building fire returned home.

Wednesday's dawn blaze quickly engulfed a housing block home to some of the many foreign labourers servicing the oil-rich gulf state's economy.

Fifty people died in the resulting inferno, 45 of them Indians, with dozens more hospitalised and anguished relatives back home frantically chasing news of whether their loved ones had perished.

"We held on to hope till the last minute that maybe he got out, maybe he's in the hospital," Anu Aby, the neighbour of 31-year-old victim Cibin Abraham, told AFP.

Aby said that Abraham had been due to return to his home in Kerala state in August for his child's first birthday.

Abraham had been on the phone to his wife just an hour before the fire began, he added.

Others sat in a waiting area at Kochi airport in India's south, wiping away tears as the Indian Air Force plane carrying the remains of their relatives touched down.

Most of oil-rich Kuwait's population of more than four million is made up of foreigners.

Many of them are from South and Southeast Asia working in construction and service industries, and living in overcrowded housing blocks like the one that went up in flames on Wednesday.

Nearly 200 people were living in the building and many of the dead and injured suffocated from smoke inhalation after being trapped by the flames, according to a fire department source.

The bodies of many of the dead were charred beyond recognition and needed to be formally identified through DNA testing before they were repatriated.

One Kuwaiti and two foreign residents have been detained on suspicion of manslaughter through negligence of security procedures and fire regulations, authorities in the Gulf state said Thursday.

On Wednesday, Interior Minister Sheikh Fahd Al-Yousef vowed to address "labour overcrowding and neglect", and threatened to close any buildings that flout safety rules.

Three Filipinos were also among the dead, with the country's migrant workers secretary Hans Leo J. Cacdac saying authorities in Manila were in touch with next of kin.

The blaze was one of the worst seen in Kuwait, which borders Iraq and Saudi Arabia and sits on about seven percent of the world's known oil reserves.

In 2009, 57 people died when a Kuwaiti woman, apparently seeking revenge, set fire to a tent at a wedding party when her husband married a second wife.

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