KUALA LAMPUR: Victims of a fire at an Islamic school in the Malaysian capital that killed 23 boys and teachers were buried Friday, as hundreds of mourners looked on in stunned silence.
The blaze erupted in the boarding school in downtown Kuala Lumpur before dawn Thursday. Firefighters extinguished the blaze within an hour, but not before it had gutted the centre's top-floor dormitory.
Horrific accounts emerged of students screaming in desperation because they were unable to escape the inferno as the dormitory's only door was on fire and metal security grilles barred the windows.
Rescuers found the bodies of 21 schoolboys and two teachers in piles, indicating there may have been a stampede as the students sought to flee the fire, the country's worst for two decades.
At the Raudhatul Sakinah cemetery on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, a 1,000-strong crowd of mourners fell silent as the first body -- of 10-year-old Mohamad Aidil Aqmal -- arrived in a hearse.
He was solemnly lowered into a grave before his family sprinkled scented water onto his final resting place.
His grandfather, Zakaria Darus, said he was a "charming little kid" and his death was like a heavy blow to the head.
"I just can't believe he has died, I will miss his company," he told AFP.
The remains of another eight schoolboys arrived soon afterwards in hearses and were buried. Another three children were to be buried at the same site, while the other victims were to be buried at different cemeteries.
Before being transported to the cemetery, final prayers were said for the victims at an Islamic prayer hall at a Kuala Lumpur hospital.
Controversial religious schools
The blaze has sparked outrage and focused attention on religious schools in Malaysia, where many Muslims send their children to study the Koran, after recent controversies and concerns about safety.
Police initially believed the fire was an accident caused by an electrical short circuit or a mosquito-repelling device but said Friday they were not ruling out foul play.
Khirudin Drahman, director of Kuala Lumpur's fire and rescue department, told AFP that authorities were now investigating claims gas cylinders could have played a role.
One of the survivors said two cylinders were left by the dormitory door and had caught fire, preventing those inside from leaving.
"We have not ruled out foul play," Khirudin said, adding that fires in dormitories were typically caused by unattended cooking or mosquito coils.
Some of the children did manage to escape by breaking through a grille and jumping out or sliding down drain pipes. A handful are still in hospital.
The case has prompted calls for better regulation of Islamic schools, which are overseen by religious authorities rather than the education ministry.
The school involved in Thursday's fire was a known as a tahfiz, and officials say it did not have the necessary operating licences, including a fire safety permit.
The Star newspaper, citing data from the fire department, said there were 1,034 blazes at registered and unregistered religious schools between 2015 and August 2017, with 211 destroyed.
"(Islamic schools) must comply with the rules or else they cannot operate, especially when they house such young children," Hatta Ramli, an opposition lawmaker from Islamic party Amanah, told AFP.
"The risk of fires or other disasters is there."
About 60 percent of Malaysia's population of over 30 million are Muslim Malays, and the country is also home to substantial ethnic and religious minorities.