New Zealand blaze suspect pleads not guilty to murders

New Zealand blaze suspect pleads not guilty to murders
New Zealand blaze suspect pleads not guilty to murders

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - The blaze last May engulfed the four-storey, 92-room Loafers Lodge hostel in Wellington city centre, causing such extensive damage that it took police two weeks to examine the building. — AFP pic

WELLINGTON, March 22 — The man accused of starting a hostel fire that killed five people in New Zealand last year pleaded not guilty to their murders in court today.

The blaze last May engulfed the four-storey, 92-room Loafers Lodge hostel in Wellington city centre, causing such extensive damage that it took police two weeks to examine the building.

The suspect, who cannot be named for legal reasons, pleaded not guilty to two counts of arson in addition to the five counts of murder, an official at Wellington High Court told AFP. It was the first time a plea had been entered.

The suspect’s lawyer said that a defence of insanity would be used during the trial, which starts in August.

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On top of the alleged murders, the suspect is also charged with starting a sofa fire inside the hostel, and with setting the building itself alight a few hours later.

The scale of the fire shocked the country, with then-prime minister Chris Hipkins describing it at the time as an “absolute tragedy”.

Some survivors had to crawl through thick smoke in the dark of night to escape, while firefighters had to rescue others from the rooftop.

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Loafers Lodge advertised itself as a “convenient and affordable” accommodation, and was home to a mix of long- and short-term residents, including some on lower incomes or those staying temporarily in New Zealand. — AFP

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