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South Africa: man confesses to starting fire that killed 76

Debris from the fire in Johannesburg that killed 76 people in August 2023.   -  
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South Africa

A man was arrested in South Africa on Tuesday and will face 76 counts of murder after telling an inquiry that he started a deadly building fire in Johannesburg last year.

The 29-year-old said he started the fire while trying to get rid of the body of someone he had strangled in the apartment complex on the orders of a drug dealer.

The surprise confession was given at a public inquiry into the blaze, with the unnamed man saying he poured gasoline on his victim's body and set it alight.

The inquiry is looking into what caused the fire and what safety failures might have resulted in so many people dying.

It was not a criminal proceeding and a lawyer leading the questioning of witnesses said that the man's confession couldn't be used against him because it wasn't a criminal hearing.

The man, who was a resident of the building, is also facing 120 counts of attempted murder and a charge of arson.

The blaze which spread through the building was one of South Africa's worst disasters, drawing the world's attention to the problem of so-called hijacked buildings in Johannesburg, which are abandoned by authorities and taken over by illegal landlords.

There are many of them in the old center of the city, officials say, illustrating the decay of parts of South Africa's largest city and one of the African continent's most important economic hubs.

Hundreds of people desperate for somewhere to live were occupying the building at the time of the fire, which killed 76, including at least 12 children.

Many of the occupants were illegal immigrants, with reports that many of the survivors refused treatment due to fear of deportation.

It also sparked anger in South Africa over authorities' seeming inability to stop the illegal takeover of such buildings. 

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa ordered the inquiry into the disaster, which started in October by hearing testimony from emergency services personnel who first responded to the fire in the early morning hours of Aug. 31.

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