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Fire forces evacuation of EU headquarters

BRUSSELS –  Smoke billowed from the roof of the building as 40 firefighters were scrambled to the scene to deal with the blaze which broke out on the ground floor of the 16-storey building in central Brussels. 

Brussels fire service spokesman Francis Boileau said the blaze erupted in an electrical duct on the ground floor and had been difficult to deal with because it spread up a vertical shaft.

"The fire was contained in and around the duct," and "there was no major damage in the offices," he said. 

No one was injured in the incident but Barroso, who thanked the firefighters for their "rapid intervention", announced there would be a probe. 

"I was on the 13th floor. It was carried out in a calm and very orderly manner," Barroso said, referring to the evacuation. 

The cause of the fire in the Berlaymont building, which houses 2,700 Commission staff and hundreds of visitors, remained unknown but one firefighter told AFP a short circuit was the most probable explanation. 

"The fire-fighters, together with technicians from the Commission, are conducting a floor-by-floor inspection of the building from top to bottom," the EU’s executive arm said in a statement.

"The Berlaymont building will remain closed for safety reasons until further notice. We are working to re-open the building as quickly as possible."  Firefighters using thermal imaging cameras worked for several hours to make sure the blaze was no longer a threat. 

The situation was calm outside on the street and across the road in the European Council building where European foreign and defence ministers were meeting. 

"It certainly wasn’t me that set off the fire," joked British Foreign Secretary David Miliband as he left those talks. 

The fire broke out around 1100 GMT.  Journalists working in one of the three underground floors complained they could smell fumes and see smoke several minutes before the alarms sounded. 

Many EU employees, while completely safe, left their work and personal effects behind and were hoping to be allowed back into the building to regain them, using flashlights in the absence on electricity. 

Major renovations were carried out on the building, which was constructed in the 1960s, after the discovery of asbestos in 1991. 

Situated in the heart of Brussels’ European quarter, the cross-shaped building covers 240,000 square metres and houses the offices of Barroso and his 26 EU commissioners and their staff.