At least 64 people were killed and several injured in a fire likely caused by an oxygen tank explosion at a coronavirus hospital in Iraq's southern city of Nassiriya, health officials and police said on Monday.
As rescuers combed the smoke-charred building in search of more bodies, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi held urgent meetings with senior ministers and ordered the suspension and arrest of health and civil defense managers in Nassiriya, his office said in a statement.
The manager of the hospital was also suspended and ordered to be arrested, the statement added.
Already decimated by war and sanctions, Iraq's healthcare system has struggled to cope with the coronavirus crisis, which has killed 17,592 people and infected more than 1.4 million.
"Health crews carried charred bodies out of the burning hospital while many patients were coughing from the rising smoke," a Reuters reporter at the site of the fire said.
Health officials at Nassiriya said search operations at the al-Hussain coronavirus hospital were continuing after the fire was brought under control, but thick smoke was making it difficult to enter some of the burnt wards.
"Raging fires have trapped many patients inside the coronavirus ward and rescue teams are struggling to reach them," a health worker told Reuters before entering the burning building.
Initial police reports suggested that an oxygen tank explosion inside the hospital's COVID-19 wards was the likely cause of the fire, a policeman at the scene of the fire said.