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Outrage over lack of regulation as widow loses three sons in school blaze

Widow loses three sons to fire in unregulated religious school

KUALA LUMPUR: A widow lost her three sons in a fire that engulfed a religious school, killing 21 students and two teachers.

The fire at the Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah school in Datuk Keramat, in Kuala Lumpur, broke out early Thursday morning.

A cousin of the widow, Madam Mashawani Mohamed Shahid, 29, told The Star she hoped the mother would stay strong. Her husband died eight years ago.

Another cousin, Ms Mas Aliza Ali Bapoo, whose family had taken care of the boys since their father died, told Bernama that Muhammad Hafiz Iskandar, 11, had called on Wednesday asking that he and his brothers Muhammad Syafid Haikal, 13, and Muhammad Harris Ikhwan, 10, be allowed to go home for the holidays.

Ms Mas Aliza, 22, and her mother were at the morgue on Thursday to claim the bodies.

"We planned to pick them up on Saturday and did not expect all of them would perish. We are too shocked," she said.

Cases like this have led to mounting calls for stronger regulation of religious schools.

Officials in Malaysia said there have been 31 similar incidents in the past, but the fire at the tahfiz school - where students learn to memorise the Quran - was the worst in 20 years.

But The Star reported that 1,034 fires have occurred in registered and unregistered religious schools from August 2015 to last month.

There was only one way out, but they could not get through because it was on fire. Faizal Abdullah, whose 12-year-old brother, Mohamad haikal Abdullah, died in the blaze

Of these, 211 schools were burned to the ground, the newspaper said, quoting data from the fire department.

Family members of Mohamad Haikal Abdullah, a 12-year-old who died in the blaze, are furious.

"From what we understand, there was only one way out, but they could not get through because it was on fire," said his brother Faizal Abdullah.

"How could something like this have happened?"

The authorities said the school made structural changes to the building and had not secured a clearance from the fire department, Reuters reported. The school denied this.

Malaysia provides a secular education system, but growing conservatism has led to a boom in the number of Islamic religious schools, most of which are privately run.

Inadequate regulation and training have led to a slew of safety issues at such schools, including reports of fires, abuse and student deaths, religious leader Mohamad Asri Zainul Abidin said.

Some owners of such schools set them up just to make money, he added.

Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said some religious schools were reluctant to follow government regulations because they did not want interference in their administration.

The Fire and Rescue Department initially said it believed the blaze was caused by ashort circuit or a mosquito-repelling device.

But Mr Khirudin Drahman, director of Kuala Lumpur's Fire and Rescue Department, told AFP that the authorities were now investigating claims that gas cylinders could have played a role. A survivor said two cylinders were left by the dormitory door and caught fire, preventing those inside from leaving.

"We have not ruled out foul play," Mr Khirudin said, adding that fires in dormitories were typically caused by unattended cooking or mosquito coils.

He said: "The forensic team is doing the laboratory tests. We want to wrap up the results as soon as possible."

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