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Fire Guts Historic Parliament Building; Arson Suspected

August 2, 1996

PARAMARIBO, Suriname (AP) _ A fire gutted Suriname’s historic House of Parliament, raising suspicions of arson a week before legislators were to try to choose a new president for the South American nation.

The fire Thursday night destroyed the national archives and those of the nearby Roman Catholic Church, housed in the home of the bishop.

No one was hurt.

``The fact that the two buildings are burning simultaneously is, for me, an indication that it is arson,″ Trade and Industry Minister Richard Kalloe said on national television from the scene.

But opposition leader Desi Bouterse told Radio Netherlands arson would be ``completely senseless″ and suggested the fire could have started from something such as a short-circuit.

Police detained two night watchmen who were on duty at the Parliament for interrogation.

Firefighters hampered by low water pressure were unable to control the blaze that began in the gracious, wooden 18th-century building.

The fire spread to three other historic buildings, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a vacant 17th-century house behind the assembly and an annex to the bishop’s home that housed the church archives.

For three hours, state television showed the buildings, built by Dutch colonizers, collapsing under the fire. All were wooden except for the brick base of the Parliament, built from the tropical jungle that covers most of this nation on the shoulder of the South American continent facing the Atlantic Ocean.

Arson has been suspected in the night-time burnings of several historic buildings in Paramaribo in the past five years, including the High Court and the offices of the anti-drug squad.

Suriname has been in flux since May 23 elections left no party with a majority in Parliament. President Ronald Venetiaan’s four-party New Front for Democracy and Development, which won 24 of the 51 legislative seats, has been trying for weeks to expand the coalition to include two smaller parties.

A larger coalition is needed to head off the threat from Bouterse, a two-time coup leader and former military ruler whose National Democratic Party won 10 seats, nearly twice as many as any other party.

In a bid to end the deadlock, legislators had decided to meet next Wednesday to try to choose a president. Two-thirds of legislators’ votes are needed to elect a new leader.

Suriname’s 400,000 people once enjoyed the highest standard of living in South America, thanks to generous Dutch aid. The population is made up of the descendants of Amerindian natives, Dutch settlers, African slaves imported to work sugar plantations, and indentured laborers from Java and East India who came after slavery was abolished.

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