RIGA (Reuters) - Eight people died in a fire in an "illegal" tourist hostel in the centre of the Latvian capital Riga early on Wednesday and the city's mayor vowed to shut such accommodation down.
Mayor Martins Stakis said the hostel, set up in an apartment near the city's main railway station, was mainly used by foreigners but it was not clear yet who the victims were.
Alongside the eight dead, nine people were found injured and 24 evacuated from the fire, on the sixth-floor, after emergency services were called at 4.43 a.m. (0143 GMT), a Fire and Rescue service statement said.
News agency BNS said police had launched a criminal investigation.
The mayor said the hostel was called Japanese Style Centrum. Pictures of its premises on booking.com website show beds tightly packed into small attic rooms.
"Rooms looked like a shoe box," Sofia from Spain wrote in a review on the website after staying in the hostel in February.
Another review, by a Latvian called Viktorija who stayed there in March, said the room had no window and no ventilation, while others spoke of long-term residents living alongside visiting tourists.
"People sleeping in the stairs," an anonymous reviewer from Australia wrote in December. The hostel did not immediately respond to questions sent via the website inquiry form.
Officials were refused entry in February to carry out a fire safety inspection, BNS quoted Interior Minister Sandis Girgens as saying, while Stakis described the hostel as "illegal".
"This was not a (real) hostel; this was an apartment that was used as a hostel," the mayor said. "It is very likely that this is not the only such apartment in Riga, and we must fix this."
Hotels and hostels in the picturesque Baltic state have remained free to operate throughout the COVID pandemic but numbers of foreign visitors have dropped sharply. The nation of 1.9 million has reported 2,106 deaths the virus, with daily cases rising recently but still well below January's peak.
(Reporting by Janis Laizans in Riga and Andrius Sytas in Vilnius; editing by Philippa Fletcher)