New protests have erupted in China against strict Covid restrictions after a major fire gutted an apartment building and killed at least 10 people in Xinjiang. Nine others were also injured in the fire, officials said.
The fire spread from the 15th to 17th floors of a building in Urumqi on Thursday night.
The firefighting operation lasted about three hours, officials said.
Protesters were heard shouting “end the Covid lockdown” and tearing down barriers installed as part of China’s zero-Covid policy, which has left millions stranded in their homes for more than three months.
Locals said firefighters who responded to Thursday night’s blaze were unable to get close enough to the building due to pandemic barriers or parked cars belonging to owners stranded in quarantine.
Videos shared on social media showed a jet of water directed at the burning building from afar, with the jet falling short.
It wasn’t immediately clear why the fire truck was stationed too far from the site, and the social media claims couldn’t be independently verified.
Abdulhafiz Muhammed Emin, a Uyghur Muslim living in exile in Switzerland, told the Associated Press that his aunt and four of her children died in the fire.
“She was a wonderful woman, always thinking about her children and how to treat and educate them well,” he said. “My heart is really broken, I can’t stand it.”
Mr Emin cited social media posts saying the victims were unable to escape the blaze because zero-Covid rules prevented them from leaving their apartments.
Xinjiang “is an open-air prison,” he said. “The Chinese government doesn’t care about their lives.”
Urumqi officials have rejected those claims. But China is the only major economy still enforcing strict Covid lockdowns, even as its economy has been hit by politics.
Authorities around the world are concerned as new Covid infections soar to historic levels, with the country as a whole reporting 35,000 new cases on Saturday.
Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang, has been under restrictions since the beginning of August this year, even though the number of cases was and remains relatively low. Urumqi reported just 977 cases on Friday, almost all of them asymptomatic.
The fire incident will be investigated by a government team, Urumqi Mayor Memtimin Qadir said on Friday as he apologized to residents at a news conference.
According to officials, the fire escape doors were not closed and residents were allowed to go downstairs for “activity” as the area was marked as a “low risk area for Covid-19”.
They also blamed the residents for failing to escape in time.
“Some residents’ ability to save themselves was too weak…and they couldn’t escape in time,” said Li Wensheng, head of the Urumqi City Fire Rescue Department.
This is the second fire incident resulting in significant casualties in China in just a week.
38 more people died in a fire at an industrial trading company in central China caused by welding sparks that set fire to cloth on Tuesday earlier this week.