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22 girls killed in youth center fire

SAN JOSE PINULA, GUATEMALA (Reuters) – A fire tore through a home for abused teenagers and children in Guatemala, killing at least 22 girls on Wednesday after some residents set mattresses ablaze following an overnight attempt to escape from the overcrowded center, police said.

A crowd of relatives, some wailing with grief, gathered outside the government-run Virgen de Asuncion home for youths aged up to 18, in San Jose Pinula, 25 km (15 miles) southwest of the capital, Guatemala City.

Hospitals reported about 40 people being treated for burns.

The blaze started when a group of young people who had been isolated by authorities after a riot and an escape attempt at the center on Tuesday night set fire to mattresses, said Nery Ramos, head of Guatemala’s national police.

Authorities were investigating whether those who started the blaze were the ones who had tried to escape, Ramos added.

Burnt bodies partially covered in blankets were strewn across the floor of a blackened room in the home, pictures posted to Twitter by firefighters showed.

“We will fully support the institutions responsible for investigating, and we will contribute to finding the truth,” President Jimmy Morales said in a brief statement on national television Wednesday night.

Morales earlier declared three days of national mourning.

Plagued by Latin America’s worst rates of child malnutrition and street gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha that often prey on minors, Guatemala can be a traumatic place to grow up. Conditions in the Central American nation’s public institutions are often dismal with widespread overcrowding.