Saturday, 22 January, 2022

S.Africa parliament fire contained

A fire that has raged at South Africa's parliament for two days, was finally contained on Tuesday, firefighters said, after devastating the complex and bringing down the roof of the National Assembly.

The blaze began before sunrise on Sunday and was initially declared under control on Monday until strong winds reignited flames, leaving dozens of firefighters once again battling late into the night.

A 49-year-old man was remanded into custody until January 11 during a brief court appearance on Tuesday. He was arrested on Sunday inside the parliament and has been charged by police with "housebreaking, arson" and damaging state property.

"Firefighters managed to contain the fire just before 12:00 last night," spokesman Jermaine Carelse told AFP.

There were fresh flames again early Tuesday, he added, which firefighters extinguished.

"We currently have four fire engines on scene with approximately 20 staff members that will monitor the situation throughout the day."

No casualties have been reported in the fire, but the damage to the nation's parliament has shocked the country.

The blaze tore through the wooden room where MPs normally sit. Carelse said such was the devastation that a parliamentary session would not be held there for a long time.

Parliament spokesman Moloto Mothapo said "the entire chamber where the members sit... has burned down."

The fire started at around 5:00 am (0300 GMT) Sunday in the wood-panelled older part of the complex -- a section that once housed South Africa's first parliament.

- 'Security breach' -

Completed in 1884, the historic section is where parliament keeps treasures, including around 4,000 heritage and artworks, some dating back to the 17th century.

The older section's roof was completely destroyed, but the priceless collection of books and artworks was believed to have been spared.

The fire then spread to the neighbouring newer National Assembly and a third building housing the upper house National Council of Provinces.

Investigators said the fire broke out in two separate areas and the water sprinkler system did not work as it should have because the water was cut off.

Surveillance cameras showed the suspect in the buildings at around 2 am.

"However, security only saw him at 6 am, when they looked at the screens after being alerted by the smoke," Public Works Minister Patricia de Lille said.

"CCTVs were working. The problem is that there was no monitoring of the CCTV cameras on that fateful night," she told a news conference on Monday.

"Certainly, there was a security breach," she added, saying that this was under investigation.

The fire broke out just a few hundred metres from St. George's Cathedral, where anti-apartheid icon Desmond Tutu's ashes were interred on Sunday while the blaze raged, a day after his funeral.

Last March another fire also broke out in the older wings of parliament, but it was quickly contained.

Cape Town suffered another major fire in April, when a blaze on the famed Table Mountain which overlooks the city spread, ravaging part of the University of Cape Town's library holding a unique collection of African archives.