MOSCOW (AP) _ President Boris Yeltsin dispatched his interior minister today to the site of a fire that killed at least 23 people at a regional police headquarters.

Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin suggested that organized crime might have been responsible for the blaze in Samara, the ITAR-Tass news agency said.

The blaze started on the third floor of the six-story building Wednesday, trapping people on the upper floors, said Irina Zhirova, a spokeswoman with the Interior Ministry's national headquarters in Moscow.

By this evening, the official death toll stood at 23, including five who died in the hospital, the Interfax news agency said. An estimated 32 people remained missing and about 30 were reported injured.

Among those killed in the fire was the chief investigator at the regional Interior Ministry, the ITAR-Tass news agency said.

Investigators initially said they thought the fire was caused by an electrical short circuit, ITAR-Tass said. But Stepashin noted that his department had recently begun a crackdown on organized crime in the Samara region, and said investigators were looking into the possibility that the fire was deliberately set.

Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov warned that if arson was identified as the cause, ``an exemplary blow will be inflicted on criminal elements,'' Interfax reported.

Firefighters only managed to put out the blaze early this morning. By that time, the fire had gutted the building completely, Zhirova said.

Samara is on the Volga River, about 550 miles southeast of Moscow.