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Chinese protest slow response to fatal fire

Relatives and friends of some of the 309 people who perished in a Christmas night fire in a central Chinese city protested Thursday against what they said was official incompetence and neglect following the deadliest fire in China in six years.

"Justice for the victims of 12-25," read a banner unfurled by protesters who had taken over a traffic police stand in the center of a busy intersection. Other protesters blocked cars, demanding answers from a government they said responded slowly to the tragedy.

The protest in Luoyang, an ancient capital of several Chinese dynasties in southern Henan province, was a reminder of how even tragic incidents have a political dimension in China.

According to witnesses, protesters were furious at the city government after revelations that the Dongbu shopping center had been declared one of the 40 most dangerous buildings in Henan province three years ago, but nothing was done to bring it up to code. The official Southern Daily reported on its Web site Thursday that four days before the fire, on Dec. 21, the Luoyang fire department asked the city to temporarily close the building until improvements were made.

Other marchers demanded compensation from the government for the dead. Others called for the arrest of people responsible for the blaze.

China's state-run press announced the arrest of four welders who they said accidentally ignited the fire, which sent smoke surging through a packed disco at the top of the Dongbu department store. The dance hall was packed with Christmas revelers. The welders failed in their attempt to extinguish the blaze and then fled without raising an alarm.

Eight others were held for giving false testimony about the incident, according to the official New China News Agency.

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