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Updated - Paceville crush: Man arrested for letting off gas spray; heated exchanges in Parliament; dramatic video

Opposition blames government for ignoring warnings, wants independent inquiry

Updated 6.55pm - A man has been arrested by the police in connection with the incident in Plus One Club in Paceville on Saturday night which caused a stampede in which 74 people were injured.

The man, 18, allegedly used gas spray or pepper spray inside the crowded premises, sparking the stampede. The injuries were caused when a glass stairwell at the entrance gave way. A 13-year-old girl is still in critical condition.

Many of those present had complained of shortness of breath and the presence of some sort of gas. 

Informed sources said the man was arrested on the basis of CCTV footage and witness accounts.

MINISTERIAL STATEMENT

Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Abela in a parliamentary statement this evening said it appeared there had been a fight which lasted a few minutes.

A short time after people started feeling a shortness of breath and bouncers started telling people to get out.

Mr Abela said the government intended to review the process of health and safety checks in such establishments and ensure that inspections were held more frequently.

There would also be harsher penalties against owners who allowed children into their establishments. Children could only be let into such establishments with a special permit by the authorities, and alcohol may not be shown or sold. In this case, no such permit was issued.

A review would also be carried out on the activities of bouncers and how trained they were to handle emergencies such as this, Mr Abela said.

Mr Abela expressed solidarity with the victims and thanked paramedical staff and the police.

Opposition leader Simon Busuttil said the people expected answers for this case and the Paqpaqli case a few weeks ago. Answers were needed on the cause of this incident, overcrowding and the provision of emergency exits. Was it true that this establishment did not have a functioning emergency exit?

He agreed with the minister that tougher action was needed against the presence of children in such establishments. He also agreed that action was needed over the actions of bouncers, who were often heavy handed.

Dr Busuttil said the video of the case, revealed today, revealed the absence of the police. Where was the Rapid Intervention Unit? True, this was not a problem which started today, but police presence needed to be increased because this could have avoided the incident. 

Beppe Fenech Adami, shadow home affairs minister, said an independent inquiry should be appointed. One should not rely on a Magisterial inquiry which took ages to be completed, as had happened in the Paqpaqli case. The inquiry should establish what caused the incident, why the emergency door had not functioned. 

The law of the jungle prevailed in Paceville like never before, Dr Fenech Adami said. The Opposition had been warning of the deteriorating situation for months, but especially after the recent incident involving the knife wielding man and the incident involving Croatia football supporters. The government had ignored the warnings  accusing the opposition of exaggeration and alarming the people. Now it should now shoulder its responsibilities.

Labour MP Dedborah Schembri listed cases where people were killed or seriously injured in fights in Paceville at the time of the PN government. The problem was not new, but the PN government had done nothing about it. Furthermore, did the call for an independent inquiry imply that the Opposition felt that the Magistrate was not independent enough to hold an inquiry?

Jason Azzopardi (PN) said that in terms of criminal law, the Magisterial Inquiry report could not be published, but the report of an independent inquiry could.

Labour MP Silvio Parnis said people did not wish to see political squabbling but maturity and solutions from their political leaders. 

Francis Zammit Dimech (PN) said an independent inquiry would also examine institutional set-ups and procedures.

Deo Debattista (PL), who is chairman of the Occupational Health and Safety Authority, said there were several regulatory bodies and these needed to communicate better with each other. He called for a Fire Safety Act to also regulate issues such as fire exits.

Marlene Farrugia (PL) called for a review of permit requirements and conditions. Were permits granted according to the identity of whoever applied or according to facilities? Were inspections the same for everyone? Were inspectors turning a blind eye?

The Prime Minister said he did not Punch and Judy politics, nor pontification from the Opposition. Did anyone blame the former government when the Save'On market collapsed or the Libyan ambassador's son was killed in Paceville? Could a person (Dr Zammit Dimech) speak about health and safety when he stood accused in court in relation to the death of a person?  He was not blaming Dr Zammit Dimnech, but Dr Fenech Adami had created this situation, Dr Muscat said.

Dr Muscat promised that the government would tackle the current 'hotch potch'' of regulations and the 'joke' that owners could only be fined €230 for each under-age person found on the premises.

Justice Minister Owen Bonnici said magisterial inquiry reports were published in exceptional cases before, and the same would happen this time.

Concluding, minster Abela said he expected more responsibility and prudence from the opposition, which was bent on scoring political points. Dr Fenech Adami was parliamentary assistant in the Home Affairs Minister in the past, but what had he done?

While the opposition claimed that a strong police presence could have prevented this incident, in 2003 there was an attempted murder at St Julian's police station itself.

Police presence had been increased from just three in the past to 20, as was the case last Saturday night, along with a drug squad unit. 

DRAMATIC VIDEO

Earlier today new video emerged showing the crush at the entrance of the club. 

The prime minister had promised an investigation and reforms amid an outcry over the presence of children and alleged lack of emergency exits and overcrowding. 

He said at a meeting with the National Youth Council this morning that talks would be held immediately but law enforcement was crucial as the laws were already clear and included fines and even withdrawal of licences. 

A look was also needed at the role of parents and the education system which was geared for exams and ignored other realities. Social problems also contributed, he said.

He said one also needed to consider alternative entertainment for these children so that they did not resort to other practices such as parties in abandoned houses.

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