• Kyodo

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Six people were killed in a fire that gutted the first floor of a jewelry shop in Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture, on Sunday night, and police said Monday they suspect arson.

A 49-year-old resident of Tochigi Prefecture, who was seen fleeing the scene of the fire Sunday evening, was being interrogated for a possible connection to the case, police officials said.

The victims were identified Monday as Kimiko Arai, 49, manager of the Utsunomiya shop of Tsutsumi Jewelry Co., and five employees — Michiko Hori, 51, Namiko Matsuyama, 51, Shoko Asanuma, 22, Masae Tachikawa, 24, and Michiko Kuno, 41.

Before they were killed by the fire, one of the victims reportedly told her family that she would be home late because the shop was “having trouble” with a customer.

Police quoted witnesses as saying a man holding what appeared to be a sack fled the scene shortly after the fire started. They suspect that the man may have visited the shop as a customer earlier in the evening.

Tochigi police said they have set up a special squad to investigate the case as murder and arson.

The jewelry in the shop remained untouched and police are probing whether cash was taken.

The fire broke out around 10:50 p.m. and raged through the 110-sq.-meter first floor of the three-story concrete building until it was extinguished more than two hours later, police said.

Five of the bodies were found on top of one another in a small lounge, while the remaining body was in an adjacent restroom, police said.

As the lounge was badly burned, the arsonist may have gathered the employees there and sprayed oil before setting fire to it, police said.

Shortly after a fire alarm rang — accompanied by sounds of an explosion — a man in his 40s, about 160 cm tall, was seen running from the shop, police said.

Another witness told police several men fled the scene.

The shop usually closed at 7:30 p.m., and Arai and the others were scheduled to go out for a business dinner Sunday after work, acquaintances reportedly told police.

However, one of the employees had called her family about one hour before the fire broke out, saying she would be late because the shop was having trouble with a customer, police said.

Around the same time, a former employee of the shop who had a dinner appointment with Kuno — one of the victims — called the shop, but Kuno said she was not sure if she could make it because she had a customer.

Another victim told her grandmother around that time that she would come home late because she was “having a meeting” with her colleagues at the shop.

The shop’s burglar alarm, which is usually set at closing time, was turned on at around 10 p.m., but a device linking it to a security company was not activated, police said.

Tsutsumi Jewelry, based in Warabi, Saitama Prefecture, has 116 shops, mainly in the Kanto region.

The Utsunomiya shop is in a busy shopping and restaurant district about 1 km west of JR Utsunomiya Station.