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Arson suspected after 3d fire in Paris area kills 15

L'HAY-LES-ROSES, France -- Firefighters treating survivors at a housing project fire that killed 15 people yesterday were pelted with stones by youths complaining of a tardy response, in what the mayor called a ''night of horror."

Police said it appeared that local youths set the predawn fire in the 19-story project south of Paris -- the third deadly blaze in the Paris area in the past nine days. Arson was suspected in the two earlier fires as well.

The dead included three children, and at least four people were critically injured, authorities said.

The police detained three teenage girls in connection with the blaze, which they said was probably caused by a fire started deliberately in a mailbox in the hallway of the building during the night, sources close to the inquiry said.

Residents screamed and leaped from windows in the fire that Mayor Patrick Seve said began around 1 a.m. in the town of L'Hay-les-Roses, near Orly airport.

As dozens of firefighters rushed to the scene, youths, apparently angry about what they considered a slow response from rescue teams, threw rocks at them, the mayor said. Rescue squads said they responded in about 15 minutes.

''The firefighters were getting hit by stones while they were conducting heart massages," he said. Officials said at least five people were revived after suffering heart attacks, and one pregnant woman gave birth after being rescued.

Most of those who died had tried to flee through the entrance hall but were met with 570-degree temperatures, smoke, and asphyxiation, the mayor said.

''That's what caused the catastrophic toll" Seve said, calling it ''a night of horror."

The inferno broke out near the residents' mailboxes, swept into the stairwell and raced up at least three floors, damaging several apartments, firefighters said.

''People were screaming and wanted to jump," said Claude Camps, 48, who fled the building with his wife.

Some 500 residents were in the low-cost housing project at the start of the blaze, and those who stayed in their apartments were not hurt. Authorities evacuated the building and prepared temporary lodging for the survivors.

Witnesses claimed to have seen a group of youths who lived in the building start the fire, Seve said. Several people were taken in for questioning.

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said on TF1 television that anyone found responsible for recent fires would be punished. Jean-Luc Marx, a local government spokesman, said the building was built in the early 1970s as part of a state-supported plan for low-cost housing and was recently renovated.

France has been grappling with how to deal with and prevent building fires. Yesterday's fire was the fourth deadly fire since April. The government has announced plans for new housing and the eviction of squatters from buildings considered dangerous.

Authorities are investigating possible arson in an Aug. 26 fire that killed 14 African children and three adults in a run-down apartment building. Three days later, another fire killed seven in a building used by squatters.

On Friday, authorities evacuated about 140 squatters from two dilapidated Paris apartment houses, with police moving in over the protests of screaming mothers and the sobs of children.

Material from Reuters was included in this report.

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