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African Immigrants Mourn Dead In All-Night Gathering

January 19, 1996

LUEBECK, Germany (AP) _ Mourners held an emotional vigil into the early morning today for the immigrant victims of an apparent arson fire.

Meeting outside a home for asylum seekers similar to the one hollowed out in the blaze, they were joined this morning by a man whose wife and children were among the 10 dead.

His sobs silenced discussions among those gathered, and several men carried him up the stairs to the living quarters, setting off cries from women and children on the upper floors.

The unidentified man had been out of town when the blaze tore through the house early Thursday morning, and concerned friends set out immediately to find him.

The three-story building where African immigrants mourned through the night houses more than 80 asylum-seekers from 19 nations, the largest of nine such homes in this port city. Like the others, it is known only by its address, 3 Raben Strasse.

Mostly Africans from Angola and Zaire, the mourners stood smoking in the entrance way, minded the children in a large basement room or found space to sit on the stairs. A few slumped asleep in vinyl-arm chairs.

Most have fled wars and political instability, and their countries are still not stable enough to consider returning. But the deadly blaze and its suspicious origins made them question their safety in the country where they are seeking asylum.

``Today, my opinion is very, very changed,″ said Mambasi Kanda, a 38-year-old Zairian who has been in Germany for four years. ``I don’t feel so well here in Germany.″

On Thursday, police detained three men suspected of starting the fire in Luebeck, a Baltic seaport of 210,000 that has been the scene of other nativist violence. An officer saw the three getting into a car only 100 yards from the burning house. All have police records, although not for right-wing violence, said Luebeck prosecutor Michael Boeckenhauer.

Authorities have not yet determined the cause of the fire, which killed four children and injured 35. Although officials said it was started in several places simultaneously, suggesting arson, they have not ruled out a technical defect as the cause. If deliberately set, it would be Germany’s deadliest anti-foreigner incident since World War II.

After a wave of immigrant attacks beginning with unification in 1990 and peaking in 1993, the assaults have dropped. But German authorities have arrested hundreds of neo-Nazis, banned several groups and infiltrated the movement.

Germany also changed its asylum law, resulting in a sharp drop in the number of foreigners admitted.

Many of the immigrants in Luebeck have been here more than five years, but still are living in temporary housing, unable to work or find their own shelter, said Carsten Zins, who oversees the nine immigrant homes.

He said asylum applicants should be given quick answers in their quest to remain in Germany, rather than being kept in limbo.

``The tension has grown in the last year,″ he said.

Of the more than 300 immigrants, 100 have been denied asylum, but are in various stages of appeal, Zins said. Decisions on the remaining applicants are pending.

Sometimes, the homes have to turn people away, and housing in Luebeck is hard for immigrants to find. The destroyed home had 45 registered residents, but more than that number lived there, said investigator Helmut Beck.

Late Thursday, it was still too dangerous for investigators to enter the top floor of the charred house to search for an undetermined number of missing. The upper three floors were completely destroyed, Beck said, and smoke smoldered through huge holes in the roof.

Behind the house, Germans lit candles. ``We cannot understand it,″ read a sign hung on a chain-link fence.

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