LIMA, Peru (AP) _ Hundreds of teary-eyed people gathered outside Lima's morgue clutching photographs of missing relatives, while police confiscated crate after crate of fireworks in a crackdown following the deadliest inferno in Peru's history.
The mourners were waiting Monday to identify relatives they feared were among nearly 300 people killed Saturday night when a blaze sparked by fireworks raced through four blocks of decrepit apartment buildings and shopping galleries in minutes, charring many victims beyond recognition.
Rescue workers on Monday still searched the ruined area of downtown Lima, which was crowded with holiday shoppers when the fire broke out. Attorney General Nelly Calderon said the death toll had reached 290 by the afternoon, Peru's deadliest fire on record.
Lima Fire Chief Tulio Nicolini said the blaze began after sparks from a firecracker, lit apparently as a demonstration, ignited others on some of the dozens of fireworks stands nearby.
About 40 tons of fireworks had been stashed in the congested neighborhood, said Gabriela Adrianzen of the mayor's office. It was not clear how much went off in the fire.
Police combed the city for fireworks Monday, lugging away crates of Roman candles, bottle rockets and firecrackers in hopes of averting another disaster. Authorities said they would confiscate tons of fireworks nationwide.
After visiting Lima's devastated downtown, Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo said Sunday that he was banning immediately the importation, production and sale of fireworks.
But in a country where firecrackers have been central to public celebrations for hundreds of years, persuading people to give them up was not going to be easy.
Vendors complained they were being deprived of a major source of income. Peru imported an estimated 940 tons of fireworks just for this holiday season, officials said.
``This is a time of mourning that everyone is going through, but the fiestas are going to continue the same,'' said Roberto Soler, 27, taking a break from hawking books to motorists lined up at a traffic light.
``Yes, it's dangerous, but people never learn their lesson,'' said Soler, who is from Huancayo in the Andes mountains, where the custom of celebrating with fireworks is widespread.
Fireworks are a deeply rooted tradition in Peru, said Juan Ossio, an anthropologist at Lima's Catholic University who studies Andean culture. ``There is no party or celebration that is not accompanied by fireworks or firecrackers.''
Using fireworks on days of fiestas has endured since the Spaniards introduced them upon their arrival to Peru in the 16th century, Ossio said. While the tradition is most entrenched in mountain regions, it has taken hold throughout the country.
Recent rural immigrants brought to Lima the tradition of using a dazzling array of fireworks to mark virtually any type of celebration.
The booms and pops of fireworks are familiar sounds whenever one of Peru's hundreds of Andean villages marks the anniversary of its patron saint, a celebration that can last for days.