Saudi religious police blocked fire rescue -papers

RIYADH - Saudi media, in a rare criticism of the kingdom's powerful religious police, have accused the force of hampering efforts to rescue 15 girls who died inside a blazing school.

Saudi media and families of the victims have been incensed over the death of the girls in the fire that gutted a school on Monday in the Muslim holy city of Mecca. Most of the girls were crushed to death in a stampede as they tried to flee the blaze.

The al-Eqtisadiah daily said firemen scuffled with members of the religious police, also known as ''mutaween,'' after they tried to keep the girls inside the burning building because they did not wear headscarves and abayas (black robes) as required by the kingdom's strict interpretation of Islam.

The English-language Saudi Gazette, in a front-page report on Thursday, quoted witnesses as saying that members of the police, known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, had stopped men who tried to help the girls and warned ''it is a sinful to approach them.''

One civil defence officer told al-Eqtisadiah he saw three members of the religious police ''beating young girls to prevent them from leaving the school because they were not wearing the abaya.''

''We told them that the situation was very critical and did not allow for such behaviour. But they shouted at us and refused to move away from the gates,'' the newspaper quoted the officer as saying.

The father of one of the dead girls charged that the school watchman even refused to open the gate to let the girls out, the Saudi Gazette reported.

''Lives could have been saved had they not been stopped by members of the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice,'' the newspaper said.

The feared mutaween roam the streets of the conservative kingdom wielding sticks to enforce dress codes and sex segregation and to ensure prayers are performed on time

Those who refuse to obey their orders are usually beaten and sometimes jailed.