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The interior of a hot springs hotel which caught fire early in the morning is pictured in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, China August 25, 2018. Xie Peihua/CNS via REUTERS

(reuters_tickers)

BEIJING (Reuters) - A fire tore through a hot springs hotel in the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin before dawn on Saturday, killing 19 people and causing 23 others to be taken to hospital, city officials said.

Authorities are investigating the cause of the blaze at the four-storey Bailong Hot Springs Leisure Hotel, an inexpensive spa resort visited mainly by domestic tourists, which broke out just after 4:30 a.m. (21.30 p.m. BST on Friday).

The People's Daily newspaper cited fire officials as saying the blaze had started in a kitchen on the second floor.

Flames swept through an area of about 400 square metres (4,300 square feet) before being extinguished after three hours, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV reported. Footage showed rescue workers picking through the charred building.

Casualties treated in hospital were in the 40s to 70s age range, the newspaper said, citing the Harbin First Hospital. Further details about those who were killed were not immediately available.

An earlier death toll of 18 rose by one after a victim died in hospital, officials said.

China has a patchy record for building safety regulations, and the country's Ministry of Emergency Management said it would launch nationwide fire safety inspections in buildings such as hotels, sauna, hospitals, schools and shopping malls, CCTV reported on Saturday.

Beijing's municipal government launched a 40-day "special operation" targeting fire code and building safety violations after an apartment fire in the Chinese capital in November killed 19 people.

Harbin, in the far northeast of China and home to a large Russian population during the early 20th century, is famous for buildings dating from that era as well as a popular winter snow and ice festival.

(Reporting by Lusha Zhang and Tony Munroe; Editing by Sam Holmes and Helen Popper)

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Reuters