updated 1/31/2009 4:26:39 PM ET 2009-01-31T21:26:39

About 20 people died Saturday in a nursing home fire in northwestern Russia, officials said.

Konstantin Bobrov, a spokesman for the regional government in the Komi province, said in a telephone interview that firefighters were still trying to extinguish the blaze and the exact number of victims wasn't clear.

Grigory Gorbunov, a spokesman for the Emergency Situations Ministry's branch for northwestern Russia, said on Vesti 24 television that three of the home's residents were rescued and 23 are missing.

The Interfax news agency quoted emergency officials in Komi as saying that up to 25 people might have died.

Gorbunov said local authorities were slow to report the fire, and firefighters found the building in the town of Podyelsk engulfed in flames when they arrived from a nearby town.

Russia has experienced frequent fires at hospitals, schools and other state-run facilities. Many have been blamed on official negligence.

Russia records nearly 18,000 fire deaths a year, several times the per capita rate in the United States and other Western countries.

In March 2007, a fire in a nursing home in southern Russia killed 62 people. A nearby fire station had been shut, and it took firefighters almost an hour to get to the site from a larger town after a night watchman ignored two fire alarms before reporting the blaze, authorities said.

A nursing home fire in Siberia in June 2007 killed 10 people.

In December 2006, locked gates and barred windows prevented victims from escaping a blaze that killed 46 women at a drug treatment center. Inspectors had recommended its temporary closure earlier that year because of safety violations.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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