Twenty-four people, mostly teenage boys, were killed Thursday when a blaze tore through a Malaysian religious school, in what officials said was one of the country’s worst fire disasters for years.

The blaze broke out before dawn in the tahfiz — an Islamic religious school — in the heart of the capital Kuala Lumpur.

Firefighters rushed to the scene and the blaze was out within an hour but not before it wreaked terrible devastation.

Pictures in local media showed ash-covered, fire-blackened beds, as horrific accounts emerged of the youngsters trying to escape the school as it went up in flames and neighbours hearing their cries for help.

“The children were desperately trying to escape the flames,” Federal Territories Minister Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor said in a television interview.

“There were metal grills which prevented them from exiting the burning building.”

Kuala Lumpur Police chief Amar Singh said that “the bodies were totally burned”.

“Unfortunately there was only one entrance, so they could not escape. All the bodies were found lumped on one another.”

The Star newspaper reported that people in the area who had woken for morning prayers heard cries for help and saw flames engulfing the top floor of the building, where children were sleeping in dorms.

Khirudin Drahman, director of Kuala Lumpur’s fire and rescue department told AFP it was one of the country’s worst fire tragedies in 20 years.

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