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Latvian leader dubs supermarket cave-in 'murder'

People leave candles at the scene where the Maxima supermarket roof collapsed in Riga on November 23, 2013
People leave candles at the scene where the Maxima supermarket roof collapsed in Riga on November 23, 2013.

Latvia's president demanded on Saturday that a supermarket cave-in which killed at least 54 people be treated as murder, as rescuers threatened by falling debris halted their search for survivors until dawn.

All search and investigation work was suspended until Sunday morning after a third section of the supermarket's roof collapsed at 6 pm (1600 GMT) Saturday without causing any injuries.

Terrifying accounts emerged from survivors of Thursday's disaster at the Maxima store in the capital Riga, as anger and suspicion mounted over its causes.

"I was queueing at the cash desk when the roof suddenly caved in. It all happened within a few seconds," said 19-year-old Antons Ryakhin, saying "about 100 people" had been inside with him.

"It was dark but still light enough to see the exit. I ran out. The doors were open, but a lot of rubble fell in front of them -- I think that's why some people couldn't get through."

A police spokeswoman told AFP 13 people were still reported missing in connection with the collapse, the Baltic state's worst disaster since independence in 1991 and Europe's third deadliest roof catastrophe in 30 years.

Rescuers stand on November 23, 2013 in the Maxima supermarket in Riga, after a roof collapsed caving in on shoppers on November 21
Rescuers stand on November 23, 2013 in the Maxima supermarket in Riga, after a roof collapsed caving in on shoppers on November 21.

But two days on, hope was dwindling that more survivors could be found.

President Andris Berzins told Latvian public television the case "must be treated as the murder of many defenceless people", demanding it be "investigated at maximum speed".

Earlier Saturday, police investigators could be seen sifting through the rubble alongside rescuers at the site where Riga mayor Nils Usakovs wants to build a memorial.

But after the third collapse, their work was halted.

"We need to ensure the safety of the rescuers," said fire chief Okars Abolins. Three firefighters were crushed to death when a second collapse occurred on Thursday.

The Latvian government confirmed that two Russian citizens were among the victims.

Cutting corners?

People carry candles at the scene where the Maxima supermarket roof collapsed in Riga on November 22, 2013
People carry candles at the scene where the Maxima supermarket roof collapsed in Riga on November 22, 2013.

Latvia declared three days of mourning for victims and flags were being flown from houses across the country with a black sashes attached.

Speculation as to the causes has centred on the extra weight created by a rooftop garden and playground, and on the possibility that building regulations may have been bent.

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

Maxima spokeswoman Olga Malaskeviciene told AFP the company had launched safety checks at its 140 other stores in Latvia and plans similar reviews in nearly 300 others in Lithuania and Estonia.

"The building was given a thorough inspection just a few weeks ago as it had reached the end of its initial two-year guarantee. No problems were found," said Marite Straume, spokeswoman for the Re&Re firm that did the construction work.

"The strange thing is, at the time of the collapse we were replacing the heavy rocks that had been there for two winters with much lighter materials to make the garden. The roof was actually getting lighter," she told AFP.

Candles were lit in front of the collapsed shopping centre in Riga on November 22, 2013
Candles were lit in front of the collapsed shopping centre in Riga on November 22, 2013.

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

"Visually the building looked great but it is more important to get the technical engineering right than the looks," Sergejs Meierovics of the Latvian association of building engineers told AFP.

Part of the roof at the two-year old supermarket crashed down during peak shopping hours around 6:00 pm on Thursday, in the Zolitude district of the Latvian capital.

Thousands of glowing candles and heaps of flowers decked the perimeter crash barriers surrounding the site, placed by a constant stream of shell-shocked residents.

"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.

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

Books of condolence have been opened at Latvian embassies abroad, while the Latvian government, Riga city council and the Maxima retailer have promised compensation to victims.

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