Twenty-three people died on Saturday when a major fire engulfed a village retirement home in northern Russia's remote Komi Republic, a local government spokeswoman told AFP.
"According to preliminary information, 23 people died and three were saved," said Liubov Terentieva, a spokeswoman from the emergency situations ministry, speaking on the telephone from the Komi capital Syktyvkar.
She said firefighters were alerted around 6:20 pm (1520 GMT) but the blaze was still not under control two hours later, adding that the fire had affected a surface of more than 1,000 square metres (10,764 square feet).
"At 6:44 pm the firefighters were already in place," she added.
The home is located in the village of Podielsk, more than 100 kilometres (60 miles) from Syktyvkar. The spokeswoman could not confirm how many people were in the complex when the fire erupted.
So far, 19 bodies had been recovered from the ruins, officials said.
According to another official from the ministry, up to 60 people could have been in the building when the blaze started, the Interfax news agency reported.
Grigory Gorbunov, another spokesman for the emergency situations ministry, told the Pervy Kanal television channel that there were a total of 26 people registered in the house.
"The firemen were alerted way too late and when they arrived the whole building was in flames," he said.
The emergency situations ministry early Sunday said that three more people lived in the house as caretaking personnel, including a guard, a nurse and a social worker. However, apparently only one of them was in the house at the time of the accident.
The regional administration spokesman Konstantin Bobrov had suggested to ITAR-TASS that the building, a single-storey wooden structure, was a regular apartment house.
However, the emergency situations ministry confirmed that the building was a "home for veterans, senior and disabled."
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered a high-level probe into the incident, Russian media reported.
So far the investigation commission suggested that the fire could have been due to careless smoking.
"The preliminary reason for the fire in Komi is careless handling of fire. Perhaps one of the tenants did not put out a cigarette," Bobrov said.
Four people died in August in a fire at a retirement home in a town near the Russian frontier with Ukraine. At least 30 people died in another blaze at a retirement home in 2007 in the Tula region just south of Moscow.
In December 2006, 45 women died in a drug rehabilitation centre in Moscow in a blaze that was apparently started purposely.