By Serajul Quadir
DHAKA (Reuters) - A devastating fire ripped through a Bangladesh garment factory supplying major Western retailers in a blaze set by workers angered over rumors of a colleague's death due to police gunfire.
Garments are a vital sector for the South Asian nation, whose low wages and duty-free access to Western markets have helped make it the world's largest apparel exporter after China.
But a series of deadly incidents, including a building collapse that killed more than 1,100 people in April, has sparked global concern over weak safety standards in the country's $22-billion garment industry.
There were no reports of casualties in Friday's fire, which gutted a ten-storey building at Gazipur, 40 km (25 miles) north of the capital, Dhaka.
But fire fighters were still battling to douse the fire in four nearby buildings, more than 15 hours after it had begun around midnight on Thursday, after workers finished for the day.
"We are still struggling to control the flames," said fire official Mahbubur Rahman, adding that 22 fire service and civil defense units been thrown into the fire-fighting operation.
At the scene, a Reuters photographer said burnt garments strewn on the floors bore brand names from U.S. retailers such as American Eagle Outfitters Inc, Gap Inc and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
Other brands on the clothes included Li and Fung Ltd, Marks and Spencer Group PLC, Sears Canada Inc, Fast Retailing Co Ltd's Uniqlo and Inditex S.A. brand Zara.
Nur-e-Alam, a senior manager of Standard Group, said the factory had stored the next six months of its supplies for top global retailers, including Gap and Wal-Mart.
"We were the biggest supplier of Gap in Bangladesh," he said, adding "Our cargoes were ready for shipment and all that was burnt up."
The loss to the firm could run into more than $100 million, estimated another group official, who asked not to be identified, saying the final tally could exceed his figure.
The factory was among the ten biggest in the country, said Mohammad Atiqul Islam, president of industry body the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, adding that the destruction could cost workers their jobs.
"Now all the workers are at risk of becoming jobless," he said.
As many as 18,000 people worked at the factory, its owner, Mosharraf Hossain, told Reuters.
A local police official dismissed as baseless the claim that a worker had died in the firing, adding that a group of workers assisted by nearby residents had set the fire.
"We are investigating to find out the reason for this heinous act," said Mohammad Kamruzzaman, the officer in charge of the Joydevpur police station that guards the area.
Police and witnesses said tempers flared following a mosque loudspeaker announcement of a worker's death after police fired in the air to break up a road blockade by workers who had earlier vandalized the factory and set two buildings on fire.
Police had to fire shots in the air to scatter the workers and let in fire fighters, Mushfiqur Rahman, another manager at Standard Group, told reporters.
The recent string of accidents in Bangladesh has put the government, industrialists and the global brands that use the factories under pressure to reform an industry that employs four million people and generates 80 percent of export earnings.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Biraj; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)