Fire raced through a crowded, rundown apartment building housing African immigrants early Friday, trapping residents in their sleep and killing 17 people — 14 of them children, officials said.

The blaze began after midnight under the ground-floor stairwell of the seven-story building on the corner of a major boulevard in southeast Paris and raged for three hours, injuring 23 people, said prosecutor Jean-Claude Marin (search).

It was the second deadly blaze in four months at buildings housing immigrants. In April, a fire at a budget Paris hotel killed 24 people, also mostly from Africa. Many of them were children.

The cause of Friday's fire has not been determined, Marin said, but he dismissed the possibility of a short-circuit. There is no proof of a criminal cause, he said.

Marin said 14 children were among the dead. A police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly, said many of the bodies were unidentifiable.

The victims — some of whom reportedly jumped from windows — were mainly from the West African nation of Mali (search). Others were from Senegal (search), Ghana (search) and Tunisia (search), building residents said.

"It's an extremely heavy toll," said Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy (search), who visited the scene, blaming the overcrowded conditions. The building had no emergency exits.

The children had been "asphyxiated," he said. "It's an abominable spectacle."

Serge Blisko, mayor of the 13th arrondissement, said the victims had "visibly, died in their sleep, asphyxiated and not burned." However, fire department officials said some victims also were burned to death.

One resident described being awakened by cries from children and adults, then rushing to his window on the second floor.

People "jumped out the windows. They didn't care about dying," said 71-year-old Oumar Cisse, originally from Mali.

"This dreadful catastrophe plunges all of France into mourning," said a statement from President Jacques Chirac. He asked that the cause of the blaze be determined as quickly as possible so that "all the consequences can be drawn."

The fire burned through the upper floors of the building and it took about 210 firefighters 90 minutes to bring it under control, said Capt. Jacques Dauvergne, spokesman for the firefighters.

Portions of the facade of the large white building were scorched from the smoke but intact. Flower-filled boxes that had fallen from balconies were strewn on the pavement below.

The building, near Paris' Place d'Italie, was requisitioned by the state in 1991 to help house immigrants in a city with soaring rents. It was managed by France-Euro Habitat (search), an association that works with Emmaus (search), a worldwide humanitarian organization.

About 100 children and 30 adults lived in the building, according to Cisse, who has lived in the building for 15 years.

He said the building was in a decrepit state, infested with rats and mice. Walls were cracked and lead was in the paint that covered them, he said.

"It was totally unfit," said Cisse, who acts as a go-between for residents and an association that manages the building.

Blisko also described the building was "overcrowded," particularly with children.

"They talk about three-room apartments with 12 people," Blisko said in an interview. "When you have this type of fire and people are sleeping, you can be sure the toll will be high."

Martin Hirsch, the president of Emmaus France, denied the building was overcrowded, saying it wasn't like places "where they stuff people in rooms to make money."

Sarkozy said he has asked that all such buildings be inventoried with an eye to closing some.

Sory Cassama, who lived in the building with his wife and 12 children, said he was asleep when a daughter knocked on the door. Their living room had filled with smoke.

"There was so much smoke in the stairwell, but we were still able to get out," said Cassama, who added that his wife was hospitalized from smoke inhalation.