AFP - Forty-one women and children were killed and dozens more injured when a fire ripped through a packed wedding party in Kuwait, triggering a panicked stampede, officials said on Sunday.
Dozens of firefighters battled to douse the flames which engulfed a large tent reserved for women during the wedding celebrations late on Saturday, in the worst civilian disaster in the modern history of the Gulf state.
"The total number of deaths reached 41. There were six children among them," Kuwaiti fire chief General Jassem al-Mansuri told AFP.
Mansuri said an additional 57 women and children were injured, seven critically, hinting that the death toll could rise further from the disaster in the town of Jahra west of Kuwait City.
"Most of the bodies were charred, many could not be immediately recognised. Forensic officials are working to identify the bodies," Mansuri said.
"The tent was burnt down within minutes and only the steel structures remained intact," he said, adding that there were between 150 and 180 women and children inside at the time.
Health Minister Hilal al-Sayer had earlier told the official KUNA news agency that 76 people with various degrees of burns had been taken to several hospitals in Kuwait, including to intensive care and specialised burn units.
A medical source said Sunday that more than 80 people were injured in the fire as relatives of some victims took them to private hospitals.
Many of the victims had fallen during a stampede as the flames spread through the tent, which was left a smouldering wreck. At least one car was also severely damaged by the fire.
Mansuri said the fire department was informed of the fire in Jahra in the desert about 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of the capital, at 9.20 pm (1820 GMT).
He said the exact cause of the blaze was not yet known and an investigation has been launched to determine what started the fire and how it spread.
Local media said the fire may have been caused by a short-circuit.
Lawmakers demanded a swift inquiry into the cause of the fire and questioned the speed of the authorities' response.
Opposition MP Daifallah Buramia said the Jahra fire has shown that the authorities' response to calamities is not quick enough.
MP Aseel al-Awadhi called for an investigation into the "fire disaster" and authorities' failure to apply strict safety and security rules for such tents.
The interior ministry advised citizens against setting up tents in crowded residential areas where rescue efforts would be delayed in case of incidents.
Several MPs called on authorities to enforce stringent safety rules for setting up tents.
Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Mohammad al-Ahmad al-Sabah visited those wounded at hospitals and was planning to visit the fire site later on Sunday.
"Rescue efforts were hampered because the burning tent collapsed on the women and the power supply failed," the English-language Kuwait Times reported, adding that 20 fire trucks and dozens of firemen battled the flames.
"Many of the women were also killed in a stampede that ensued," it added.
Most wedding parties in the conservative Muslim Gulf state are segregated in line with local tradition.
The Kuwait Times said some of the victims were relatives of people who had perished in a similar incident in Jahra last year, when two women were killed and several others wounded.