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South Korean authorities order battery maker to halt operations after deadly blaze

SEOUL — The South Korean authorities on June 26 ordered a lithium battery maker to halt factory operations indefinitely after a fire killed 23 people and said three company officials were under investigation on suspicion of having violated industrial safety laws.

The fire at unlisted battery maker Aricell on June 24 was one of the deadliest industrial accidents in recent years. Each year, dozens of workers in South Korea lose their lives on the job despite tougher laws and other efforts to improve safety.

The company, located in Hwaseong, an industrial hub south-west of Seoul, was ordered to shut down its only factory for inspections, Labour Ministry official Min Gil-soo told a briefing.

The names and titles of the Aricell officials under investigation were not disclosed. Violations of the 2022 industrial safety code can result in jail terms for fatal accidents.

Aricell chief executive Park Soon-kwan apologised on June 25 for the fire but said the company had complied with all safety regulations and training requirements.

The factory, which had 35,000 lithium batteries stored at the time of the fire, was quickly engulfed and the spread of toxic smoke likely left workers unconscious within seconds, fire officials have said.

Only three of the dead — who were South Korean men — have been identified. The others, including 17 Chinese people, have yet to be identified due to the severity of damage to the bodies.

Investigators have begun a probe to determine the cause of the blaze amid questions about Aricell's hiring of foreign workers on a temporary basis and whether they received adequate safety training.

Established in 2020, Aricell has 48 full-time employees and makes lithium primary batteries for sensors and radio