Bangladesh police charge 13 over deadliest garment factory fire

DHAKA - Bangladesh police on Sunday charged the owners and 11 others over the nation's worst garment factory fire that killed 111 people, after wrapping up an investigation 13 months after the tragedy.

Police charged owners Delwar Hossain and his wife, along with security guards and managers over the blaze last November that gutted the Tazreen factory where workers stitched clothes for Western retailers including Walmart.

"(Owners) Delwar and his wife Mahmuda Akter ... and 11 others have been charged with death due to negligence," A.K.M. Mohsinuzzaman Khan, police investigator in the case, told AFP.

The factory, on the outskirts of Dhaka, supplied clothes to a variety of international brands including US giant Walmart, Dutch retailer C&A and ENYCE, a label owned by US rapper Sean "Diddy" Combs.

The fire was the country's deadliest ever at a garment factory and shone an international spotlight at the time on the appalling safety conditions in an industry worth more than US$20 billion (S$25 billion).

The tragedy was dwarfed just months later when the Rana Plaza garment factory complex collapsed also in Dhaka's outskirts, killing at least 1,135 people in the world's worst industrial disaster.

Victims of the factory fire, mostly women who were paid as little as US$37 a month, found themselves overcome by smoke or jumped from upper storey windows.

Workers were unable to use fire exits because they led to the ground floor of the nine-storey warehouse factory, where the fire broke out on the night of November 24, firefighters have told AFP.

Khan said "this was possibly the first time a garment plant owner" has been charged over a fire at one of the nation's 4,500 factories, where deadly accidents are common because of poor safety standards.

Factory owners are rarely charged over such tragedies in the garment sector, which is a mainstay of the impoverished country's economy, accounting to up to 80 per cent of the Bangladesh's exports.

Bangladesh pledged to clean up the industry after the Rana Plaza disaster in April and more than 100 top Western retailers have signed up to new safety agreements to allow greater scrutiny of their operations.