MOSCOW — Seventeen people died Tuesday when a night-time fire tore through a two-storey Moscow market warehouse where migrant workers from a former Soviet republic were camping out in squalid conditions.
"According to preliminary information, they were migrant workers. Their identities and ages are being verified," the Russian emergencies ministry said in a statement.
Unconfirmed news reports said the migrants came from the impoverished Central Asian nation of Tajikistan. Numerous Moscow markets employ cheap labourers from the region without giving them proper housing or pay.
The blaze broke out early Tuesday at the Kachalovsky market on the southern outskirts of the city. Officials said it took two hours to put out the flames.
Emergency workers described squalid living conditions with workers sleeping on hard cots that were stacked on top of each other in rows of four without any direct access to the outside.
The workers "lived in a metal annex that was equipped with a space heater", an unnamed law enforcement official told the Interfax news agency.
"They slept in frighteningly tight conditions, on hard bunk cots that were then stacked on top of each other," he said.
Another official said the workers probably left the space heater on all night to stay warm during the frigid Moscow spring. Overnight temperatures plunged below freezing and much of central Russia has been hit by snow.
Russia's Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu demanded an immediate account of how the workers ended up living in a space the market had reserved for storing hardware supplies.
"This is turning into a tradition -- people living in markets," Shoigu said in televised remarks.
"Someone must have settled them there. This facility was completely unsuitable for housing. I ask the law enforcement official to look into this."
The migration service estimates that there are 700,000 Tajiks living officially in the country -- a tenth of their home country's population of just under seven million.
Tajikistan was wracked by a brutal civil war in the early 1990s and then experienced nearly two decades of ethnic tensions and endemic drugs trafficking that hampered sustainable growth.
Its economy remains in tatters and some analysts estimate that up to half of Tajikistan's young male population is currently trying to make a living in Moscow and other major Russian cities.
The overwhelming majority of the migrants who arrive in Moscow do so without acquiring the official city worker permits that the Russian capital has required since Soviet times.
Their employment is therefore never officially reported to the authorities and many end up living in Moscow apartment block basements or makeshift residences.
Seven migrants were killed in January 2009 when a fire swept through an underground Moscow garage they were building and had also used as a temporary living shelter.
Another seven died in May 2011 when a fire engulfed an old abandoned building in central Moscow.
The presence of Central Asian nationals and workers from the predominantly Muslim Caucasus region has also stirred racial tensions in the Russian capital and resulted in repeated deadly attacks.
President-elect Vladimir Putin had vowed to reinforce migration controls while serving as prime minister for the past four years and won a strong following from Russian nationalists while heading the Kremlin in 2000-2008.
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