Authorities are investigating the cause of an apartment building inferno in southwest Germany that killed nine people and forced parents to throw their baby from a third floor window to save her life.
As television networks broadcast the charred remains of the century-old building, and newspapers here recount the horror of the blaze, German authorities are pressured by Turkey to determine if the fire had been set deliberately. All of the fire victims are of Turkish nationality, according to German investigators.
The cause of Sunday's fire in Ludwigshafen is still unclear, but a German newspaper report that two girls had seen a man starting the blaze in the building, raises fears among Turks, inside and outside of the country, of a targeted attack. A delegation headed by Turkish State Minister Mustafa Said Yazicioglu, minister for Turks living abroad, arrived in Germany, Tuesday evening to hold talks about the fire. The group includes four Turkish police investigators, ABC News has learned.
"We expect German authorities to carry out a comprehensive investigation, taking into account every possibility, and to prosecute the perpetrators if the fire was started deliberately," the Turkish foreign ministry told reporters in Ankara, Tuesday.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel by telephone this evening, ahead of a planned trip here later this week, said in a speech to Turkish lawmakers, "we are greatly concerned over the possibility of premeditation in the fire, in which all the victims were Turks." He added, "Is the real reason behind this sad event xenophobia? We hope not."
The victims include four adults and five children, aged between 1 and 16. Eight of those who died succumbed to the effects of smoke inhalation. One woman died when she jumped from the building to escape the flames. Germany's popular Bild daily newspaper published a photograph of two brothers, called Kamil and Kenan, aged 2 and 3, and said they were among those who had died in the flames. The fire also injured more than 60 people, according to German officials.
A German newspaper reported that two girls — both 7, and both survivors of the blaze — claimed to have seen a German-speaking man set fire to a piece of paper and place it in a baby's stroller on the ground floor of the building. A senior prosecutor in Ludwigshafen, Lothar Liebig, described the girls' statements as "very significant," but said it would take several days to establish the cause of the fire, because the building is still too dangerous to enter and may collapse.
"We cannot exclude anything," Liebig told reporters. He added that, in 2006, a Turkish cafe on the ground floor of the apartment building, had been vandalized by attackers who knocked out the windows and threw flares into the cafe.
During a visit to Turkey on Monday, German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble assured Turkish officials that the German government shared the grief of the victims' families, according to his office. A spokesman later said the ministry welcomes Turkish cooperation in the investigation.
The fire began on the ground floor of the apartment block. It quickly destroyed its wooden staircase, trapping dozens of residents, according to Ludwigshafen fire chief Peter Friedrich. Some panicked residents threw their children from windows and balconies, before jumping to the ground, themselves, to escape the flames. Trapped by smoke, the uncle of a 9-month-old baby threw his nephew out of the window. The baby, called Onur, fell safely into the arms of a policeman below.
The parents also survived, but the mother is recovering in a local hospital, according to Ludwigshafen police chief Wolfgang Fromm. The drama was captured in a series of photographs published in newspapers, here and around the world, of the baby in free fall, as a group of stunned residents looked on.
There are 2.7 million people of Turkish descent in Germany, 900,000 of whom are citizens, according to government statistics. The story of the fire and the deaths was front-page news in much of Turkey, with photos of some of the victims splashed across newspapers.
Erdogan said he hoped the incident would not echo the 1993 killing of five Turkish girls and women in the western German city of Solingen. That fire was set by German youths, and the incident drew worldwide attention, and triggered debate about xenophobia in Germany.
"We hope this incident has nothing to do with xenophobia," Erdogan said.