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Uganda Fire Kills 19 Schoolgirls, Police Suspect Arson

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KAMPALA, Uganda — Sobbing Ugandan parents sifted through the ashes of a school dormitory Tuesday, searching for their daughters after a fire swept through the building, killing 19 schoolgirls and two adults.

The doors were locked from the outside, trapping some of the girls when the fire broke out as they slept, according to a worker at the Buddo school.

There were 58 girls in the dormitory, but some managed to squeeze through the narrow windows and escape, said teacher Frederick Bugmbe.

Police said there were signs the fire may have been deliberately set. "Preliminary investigations indicate that it was homicide," Police Inspector General Kale Kaihura told reporters at the scene.

Nine-year-old Margaret Atim said she was jolted awake late Monday by a loud bang.

"I saw fire on one side of the dormitory and I jumped out through the window," said the girl, who said she heard students crying and screaming and sounds like gun-blasts.

Parents searching the smoldering debris Tuesday mourned their children.

"Help me, oh God please help me," wailed Jacqueline Bakoba as she lifted up part of the collapsed roof looking for her missing daughter, Betty.

By the time firefighters reached the school, most of the dormitory had burned down and part of the roof and inner walls had collapsed. The fire destroyed almost all the mattresses and children's clothing and the heat warped the metal bed frames.

Kaihura said interviews with teachers and survivors led him to believe the fire had been started deliberately.

Hundreds of parents arrived at the school, which has around 1,000 students, to search for their children. The school is seven miles from the capital, Kampala.

Police were still searching the site for more bodies.

Lydia Namusisi, 14, who lives in a nearby dormitory, said she was woken late Monday by a loud bang. When the girls tumbled out of bed, they found the dormitory next door blazing.

School worker James Kiiza said the doors had been locked from the outside. He said there was no electricity at the time of the fire, but that the school does not permit the use of candles.

Sylvia Nakatte said she received a phone call telling her that her 12-year-old daughter, Mary, had died.

"I rushed to the school but her body cannot be identified," she said, weeping and clawing at the sodden ashes.

Sixty-seven students were killed in dormitory fire in Kenya in 2001 when they became trapped behind a locked door and barred windows.