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Police Arrest Lebanese Resident of Burned Shelter in Fatal Fire

January 21, 1996

LUEBECK, Germany (AP) _ After barely escaping with his life from a burning home for asylum-seekers, a Lebanese resident told his rescuers that he had helped start the fire, authorities said Sunday.

Six children and four adults were killed Thursday in the fire that destroyed the four-story building, where about 50 African and Middle Eastern refugees lived.

The 21-year-old suspect, identified only as Safwan E., was arrested Saturday on 10 counts of murder, 38 counts of attempted murder, arson and other charges. He has denied the allegations.

Safwan’s two brothers were temporarily detained for questioning, and are not considered suspects, police said. However, authorities said they are continuing to search for accomplices.

Asked about a possible motive, police chief Winfried Tabarelli told reporters there may have been a conflict among the residents. But he said police had never been called to intervene in any dispute at the house.

Many initially had suspected the fire to be an anti-foreigner attack.

Hours after the blaze, police detained three Germans, one described as a skinhead, who had been seen nearby. They soon were released because police said they had a strong alibi.

On Sunday, authorities said the fire was deliberately set from inside the house, on the top floor _ where Safwan lived.

Chief prosecutor Klaus Dieter Schultz said Safwan knew details _ including exactly where the fire broke out _ ``that only the culprit could have known.″

Schultz said Safwan was rescued by firefighters, barely escaping alive. He suffered burns on his ears, but stayed to help the rescuer workers.

At one point, Schultz said, he told a firefighter, ``We were it,″ and gave details about the fire that matched evidence later found in the ruins.

The firefighter at first only told his colleagues about the comments, then later the police. The suspect was picked up Friday night.

Police have yet to release the identities of the victims, but other immigrants say six Zairians, two Angolans and a man from Togo were among those killed. The identity of the 10th victim was unclear.

On Sunday, security guards outside a barracks where many of the fire’s survivors are staying turned reporters away, saying no one wanted to give interviews.

Bacar Gadji, a spokesman for the African community in Luebeck, said the Safwan’s arrest ``doesn’t change our mourning. But it would be a shock, if it turns out to be one of us.″

Right-wing attacks on immigrants soared after Germany’s unification in 1990. After a peak in 1993, however, assaults have declined steadily due to a crackdown on extremist groups and new asylum laws that lowered the number of foreigners admitted.

German politicians, who initially expressed shock that the fire was suspected as an anti-immigrant attack, said Sunday that Germans should not feel a sense of relief over the turn of events.

Hans-Jochen Vogel, former chairman of the opposition Social Democrats, said Germans instead should ``reflect seriously″ on why so many thought such an attack by right-wing radicals in Germany was possible.

Update hourly