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Supermarket cave-in that killed 52 must be 'treated as murder': Latvian president

world Updated: Nov 23, 2013 19:55 IST

Latvia mourned its dead on Saturday after rescuers spent a second night looking for survivors in the rubble of a Riga supermarket whose roof collapsed, killing at least 52.

The latest body was hauled out at dawn and hopes of finding anyone alive were dwindling nearly two days after the worst disaster since Latvia's 1991 independence.

Latvian President Andris Berzins said on Saturday that the supermarket cave-in should be viewed as a murder case.

"This case must be treated as the murder of many unprotected people," the president told the public LTV broadcaster, calling for Thursday's disaster in the capital Riga to be "investigated at maximum speed".

The small Baltic state of two million began three days of official grieving over the Thursday tragedy as officials began probing the causes of Europe's third worst roof disaster in 30 years.

"The latest body was found this morning at 6:00 am (0400 GMT) bringing the total to 52, including two bodies that are still unidentified," police spokesman Toms Sadovskis told AFP.

Rescuers continued to comb the mangled the Maxima supermarket's wreckage of steel and concrete as morning mists rose after a second night of work in near-zero temperatures.

Riga mayor Nils Usakovs said Friday five people were feared trapped inside but it was unclear how many were still believed to be missing on Saturday.

Forty people survived the catastrophe, according to rescue services.

A ring of thousands of glowing candles and heaps of flowers decked the perimeter crash barriers surrounding the disaster site, placed by a constant stream of shell-shocked members of the public.

"I don't even know why I'm here. It just seems important. Maybe if there is still someone in there they can feel that we are here," pensioner Normunds Andersons told AFP as he maintained a vigil at the site as dawn broke.

Flags were being flown from houses across the country with a black sash attached -- a traditional sign of mourning.

Just days after November 18 independence celebrations, the tragedy snuffed out an upbeat mood in Latvia, with 2014 set to mark its entry in the eurozone and showcase Riga as the European capital of culture.

The mood in the Martina coffee shop in central Riga on Saturday morning was despondent.

"It's awful. That could have been any one of us - you, me - anyone who goes to buy bread and milk," said waitress Mara, who declined to give her last name.

Child Protection Inspectorate director Laila Rieksta-Riekstina told Latvian Radio Saturday that "16 children lost one parent and one child has unfortunately lost both parents" in the tragedy.

The website of the State Fire and Rescue Service (VUGD) paid tribute to three firefighters who were among the dead, describing them as "more like family members than colleagues".

Books of condolence have been opened at Latvian embassies abroad including Russia, Poland, the USA, Canada, Britain and Ireland while world leaders have also expressed sympathy.

A disaster fund set up for the victims has already collected 86,000 lats (120 000 euros) from public donations, the Ziedot charity announced Saturday morning, with central government and Riga city council both promising compensation to victims.

Cutting corners?

Part of the roof of the Maxima supermarket crashed down during peak shopping hours around 6:00 pm on Thursday, in the Zolitude district of the Latvian capital, with a second collapse crushing to death rescuers who had already entered the building.

Latvia will also observe a moment of silence on Monday for the accident while police probes what caused the cave-in at the two-year old supermarket.

Speculation has centred on plans to build a rooftop garden and the possibility that building regulations may not have been followed in full.

A photograph published by Latvia's Diena daily Friday showed an aerial view of the roof prior to the collapse, covered in soil, shrubbery, a children's playground and construction material.

Run by the Lithuanian-owned Maxima chain -- Latvia's number two retailer after Rimi -- the supermarket was built in 2011 and was named one of the country's top three architecture projects that year.

But Riga residents voiced suspicion that contractors had been cutting corners.

"It's probably the same old story - do it cheap and pocket the difference. But it is ordinary people who pay the real price," taxi driver Arsenijs Smirnovs told AFP.

Police have confirmed that emergency sirens had been set off in the store before the cave-in, adding they were probing who sounded the alarm and why.

Zolitude residents AFP spoke to said they had heard the siren several times in recent weeks and that people had come to ignore it as a false alarm.

Viktorija Gulbe, a spokeswoman for Maxima said that alarms had been sounded before the collapse but this had not resulted in the immediate evacuation of the building.