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58 victims buried — arson suspected

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MACHAKOS, Kenya — Members of government and Parliament joined thousands of grieving Kenyans Wednesday as they buried 58 schoolboys who the president said were victims of an arson attack as they slept in their crowded, locked dormitory.

The boys' simple, pine coffins were placed in six communal graves behind the building where they died March 26. Only one of the boys, between the ages of 15 and 19, was positively identified. The rest were burned beyond recognition in the gasoline-fueled fire. Nine boys who died later of their injuries were to be buried separately.

"The government has followed this case and has reached a stage of knowing what happened," said President Daniel arap Moi, confirming what police have called an arson attack.

More than 10,000 people attended the funeral at Kyanguli Secondary School compound, about 30 miles southeast of Kenya's capital, Nairobi. During the ceremony, the 58 coffins were placed on the same pale green tables at which they used to eat their meals in the school dining hall.

Many mourners expressed frustration and anger over the fire because school officials smelled gasoline in the 130-foot by 50-foot building the night before the fire. They were also angry because one of two doors was padlocked, and the key had been lost for two weeks.

The building's 10 windows were covered with bars, and 146 boys were crammed into a room designed to hold 60 beds.

"There was crowding in the dormitory by the headmaster," said Kanini Kituto, whose 14-year-old brother Ndolo died in the fire. "They could sense the smell of petrol, why didn't they tighten security? The headmaster is to blame very, very much."

The headmaster has refused to speak to journalists about the fire.

Students and teachers at the school believe disgruntled students set the early morning fire. One survivor said someone tossed a match into a pool of gasoline poured inside the building, and within 20 minutes the building's roof collapsed.

Students said two days before the fire, anonymous notes were posted around the school, calling on students to boycott classes and protest the annulment of exams and an order to pay outstanding school fees.

Most students — 600 were enrolled — ignored the note. On the night of March 24, they smelled gasoline in the dormitory.

School officials investigated the smell the next day, but no action was taken, students said. Shortly after midnight that night, the fire was set.

Students believe the author of the notes was angry because the call for the protests was ignored.

"The investigation is in the advanced stages," said Wellington Choka, the district police chief, declining to discuss details of the investigation. "We are sure we are going to make arrests."

Dominic and Dorcas Muoki attended Wednesday's funeral because a friend lost a son in the fire. Their 15-year-old son attends a nearby boarding school.

"The Ministry of Education was caught unaware," Dominic Muoki, 45, said. "They should put precautions in place. This is management by crisis."

Dorcas Muoki said she was concerned about her son's safety, but when asked if their son's school was safe, they made a reluctant admission.

"We've never gone to physically inspect the school," Dominic Muoki said.