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Man kills 33 in fire at Japan anime studio

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A photo shows the fire site at Kyoto Animation Co., Ltd. (so-called Kyoani) in Kyoto on July 18, 2019. (The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images)

A man screaming "you die!" has burst into an animation studio in Kyoto, doused it with a flammable liquid and set it on fire, killing 33 people.

Thirty-six others were injured, some of them critically, in a blaze that sent people scrambling up the stairs toward the roof in a desperate and futile attempt to escape what proved to be Japan's deadliest fire in nearly two decades.

Others emerged bleeding, blackened and barefoot from an attack that shocked the country and brought an outpouring of grief from anime fans.

The suspect, identified only a 41-year-old man who did not work for the studio, was injured and taken to a hospital.

Police gave no details on the motive, but a witness told Japanese TV the attacker angrily complained that something of his had been stolen, possibly by the company.

Most of the victims were employees of Kyoto Animation, which does work on movies and TV productions but is best known for its mega-hit stories featuring high school girls.

The tales are so popular that fans make pilgrimages to some of the places depicted.

The blaze started in the three-storey building in Japan's ancient capital after the attacker sprayed an unidentified liquid accelerant, police and fire officials said.

"There was an explosion, then I heard people shouting, some asking for help," a witness told TBS TV.

"Black smoke was rising from windows on upper floors. Then there was a man struggling to crawl out of the window."

Fire expert Yuji Hasemi at Waseda University told NHK that paper drawings and other documents in the studio also may have contributed to the fire's rapid spread.

Firefighters found 33 bodies, 20 of them on the third floor and some on the stairs to the roof, where they had apparently collapsed, Kyoto fire official Kazuhiro Hayashi said.

Two were found dead on the first floor, 11 others on the second floor, he said.

A witness who saw the attacker being approached by police told Japanese media that the man admitted spreading gasoline and setting the fire with a lighter.

She told NHK public television that the man had burns on his arms and legs and complained that something had been stolen from him.

She told Kyodo News that his hair got singed and his legs were exposed because his jeans were burned below the knees.

"He sounded (like) he had a grudge against the society, and he was talking angrily to the policemen, too, though he was struggling with pain," she told Kyodo News.

"He also sounded (like) he had a grudge against Kyoto Animation."

Kyoto Animation president Hideaki Hatta said the company had received anonymous death threats by email in the past, but he did not link them to Thursday's attack.

"My heart is in extreme pain. Why on earth did such violence have to be used?" he said.

© AP 2019