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Blaze in run-down Johannesburg apartment block kills scores

By Carien du Plessis and Bhargav Acharya

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - More than 70 people were killed overnight when a fire raged through a run-down, five-storey Johannesburg apartment block, one of the worst such disasters in a city where poverty, household fires and homelessness are widespread.

The building was gutted, blackened by soot and still smouldering on Thursday as emergency services gathered around it and bodies lay covered in blankets on a nearby street.

The block is owned by municipal authorities who, more than 12 hours after the blaze broke out, were still unable to provide a clear picture of who had lived there. One official said some rooms may have been rented out by criminal gangs in a so-called "hijacked building".

"I saw a guy jumping from the fourth floor and he lost his life on the spot," student Thando le Nkosi Manzini told Reuters.

Survivor Omar Arafat used his T-shirt to wipe away tears as he recounted losing his 21-year-old sister in the fire that he managed to escape.

"I broke the window ... and when I fell down, I was like 'I am dead'," he told Reuters, adding that another sister was in hospital and the family had lost all their possessions.

Thembalethu Mpahlaza, a provincial official for Forensic Pathology Services, said 74 bodies had been retrieved, 12 of whom were children and 24 of them women.

Authorities earlier said more than 50 people were being treated for injuries.

"This is a great tragedy felt by families whose loved ones perished in this terrible manner," President Cyril Ramaphosa said in televised remarks. "I do hope that the investigations into the fire will ... prevent a repeat of such a tragedy."

As Ramaphosa visited the site in the evening, cries of despair from relatives of the victims filled the air.

"It's a wake-up call for us to begin to address the situation of housing in the inner city," he said.

APARTHEID HERITAGE BUILDING

Johannesburg officials initially suggested the building had been occupied by squatters, but Lebogang Isaac Maile, the head of the Human Settlements department for Gauteng province, which includes Johannesburg, said some of those who died may have been renting from, or were being extorted by, criminal gangs.

"There are cartels who prey on who are vulnerable people. Because some of these buildings, if not most of them, are actually in the hands of those cartels who collect rental from the people," he told reporters.

City Mayor Kabelo Gwamanda told reporters the municipality had leased it to a charity for displaced women but that it had "ended up serving a different purpose". He did not give details.

A sign at the entrance to the block identified it as a heritage building from South Africa's apartheid past, where Black South Africans came to collect their "dompas" - documents that would enable them to work in white-owned areas of the city.

Johannesburg remains one of the world's most unequal cities with widespread poverty, joblessness and a housing crisis. It has about 15,000 homeless people, according to the Gauteng government.

Household fires are common in Johannesburg, especially in poor areas. One of the poorest townships, Alexandra, has seen hundreds of homes razed in several fires over the past five years.

The city suffers from chronic power shortages during which many resort to candles for light and wood fires for heat. Authorities said the cause of the fire was still under investigation.

Maile said it "demonstrates a chronic problem of housing" in the province "as we've previously said that there's at least 1.2 million people who need housing".

(Reporting by Carien du Plessis, Shafiek Tassiem, Bhargav Acharya and Alexander Winning in Johannesburg,; Additional reporting by Akanksha Khushi in Bengaluru; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by John Stonestreet and Nick Macfie)