The area is dotted with high-rise public housing blocs and was the scene of violent riots in 1990

Lyon (AFP) - Ten people died including five children Friday in a pre-dawn blaze at a rundown seven-storey apartment building in a deprived suburb of the French city of Lyon, the government said Friday.

Prosecutors were probing the source of the fire that broke out at around 3:00 am (0200 GMT) in a residential building in Vaulx-en-Velin that Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin called a known drug-dealing spot.

Darmanin said it was too early to draw any conclusions about the cause but hailed the work of firefighters who arrived on the scene 12 minutes after being alerted.

They “were able to save 15 people by taking considerable risks for their own lives by climbing the building from the outside… saving children and babies up to the seventh floor,” he said.

“Without the rapidity of the fire services and their heroism we would have had a much worse toll,” he said.

Nineteen people were injured, including four “whose lives are still in danger”, Darmanin said, adding that some of the bodies of the deceased were still being identified.

Witnesses at the scene described panicked occupants of the building screaming for help as smoke billowed from the windows.

“I heard people shouting ‘help, help, help, help us’,” said Assed Belal, a young resident of the neighbourhood.

“There were people on the ground, others stuck on the balconies and the firefighters had difficulty in intervening because of the trees,” he told AFP.

He said his friends had told him they managed to catch a 10-year-old boy who was dropped from an upper floor by his mother to save his life.

- ‘Really terrible’ -

“We all know each other, it’s really terrible, I don’t have the words,” he added.”

Two of the 170 firefighters at the scene suffered light injuries while battling the flames, which broke out on the ground floor of the building, they said.

Darmanin said residents had complained about drug-dealing and squatters in the building.

Two of the 170 firefighters at the scene suffered light injuries while battling the flames

“The (police) pressure on dealing locations is daily, but unfortunately drugs are deeply entrenched in some areas of the country,” he said.

Vaulx-en-Velin, home to a large immigrant population, is just five kilometres (three miles) from the centre of Lyon but a world away from its fancy restaurants and elegant buildings.

The formerly industrial area is dotted with high-rise public housing blocs, and was the scene of violent riots in 1990 sparked by the death of a youth who was hit by a police car.

It has been a laboratory for various urban renewal efforts since, with hundreds of millions of euros injected into the area to improve living conditions and public transport.

The building that caught fire on Friday had undergone emergency repairs in 2019, Housing Minister Olivier Klein told reporters.

It was described as “rundown” in a statement by Lyon city authorities, which had earmarked the building for renovation work in January.

Other deadly fires in France in recent years include a February 2019 blaze which killed 10 people and wounded 96.

In 2005, 24 people were killed in a fire in a residential home used by families of African origin. A woman was jailed for starting it by throwing clothes on candles during an argument.