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Minister, mayor fan sabotage flames

Fire services minister Pratim Chatterjee on Sunday said the government would include the “sabotage angle” in its probe into Friday’s fire at Kesoram Katra, the latest in the long line of old and crumbling residential-cum-commercial complexes to be destroyed by mystery fires.

Chatterjee was echoing a far more strident mayor Subrata Mukherjee, who wondered whether some “fire-raising agency” had been “entrusted” with arson at prime plots now occupied by decrepit buildings.

The mayor said the “short-circuit” theory had been used in too many recent fires that started after business hours in commercial establishments. Even late on Friday, when the fire started at Ludhiana Building, most shops and godowns had been shut down and most switches were off, officials said.

But investigators say Saturday’s and Sunday’s interrogations are lending credence to the sabotage theory. Though no one will say anything “before the probe is complete”, fire brigade officials, who have to submit a preliminary report to Chatterjee on Monday, say the leads definitely point to foul play.

Fire services director B.M. Sen said he was “very surprised” at the speed at which the fire spread. The building, a “solid British structure” constructed 103 years ago, melted “like wax” in about an hour , officials said on Sunday.

A parallel police probe into the owner’s antecedents is also throwing up “interesting” facts. D.K. Agarwal was, till six months ago, a tenant of the building. An “undisclosed” sum changed hands as Agarwal bought the property. “He started coercing tenants into moving away and tried to buy out some shop-owners,” said Jorasanko Trinamul Congress MLA Satyanarayan Bajaj.

The fact that he and his family are missing has not helped his case either. Agarwal left the building around 11.30 pm on Friday, a little before the fire started, and came back after “hearing of the fire” and left after staying only after 15 minutes, officials said, quoting his neighbours.

Officials also appeared flummoxed over Agarwal’s decision to buy a property that was declared unsafe less than two years ago. This, when, “he has debts of over Rs 50 lakh back in Ludhiana,” said a policeman.

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