Fire destroys most of Japan's Shuri Castle, a world heritage site in Okinawa

Japan's Shuri Castle on fire

a world heritage site in Okinawa is burning down.

Tokyo: A fire broke out at Shuri Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on Japan's southern island of Okinawa, early on Thursday, completely destroying the main hall and other structures.

Firefighters were still battling the blaze a few hours after the fire started, and nearby residents were evacuated to safer areas, Okinawa police spokesman Ryo Kochi said.

The fire in Naha, the capital of Okinawa prefecture, started from the castle's main structure. The main Seiden temple and a Hokuden structure, or north temple, have burnt down. A third structure Nanden, or south temple, is nearly destroyed, Kochi said.

A popular tourist attraction, Shuri was built more than 500 years ago as the royal castle of the Ryukyu Kingdom.

The fire happened in the middle of its annual mid-autumn festival. It had been scheduled to be included as a stop on the 2020 Tokyo Olympic torch relay route.

Located on a hilltop overlooking the city of Naha and enclosed by curved stone walls, the castle and its surrounding structures were painted a vivid red, and recognisable by their sloped tiled roofs.

Nobody has been injured. The cause of the fire was not immediately known.

Television footage showed the multi-structure castle reduced to a skeleton, shrouded in flames and smoke hours after emergency responders received the first call about the fire, just before 3am (5am ASDT), public broadcaster NHK said.

The ancient castle is a symbol of Okinawa's cultural heritage from the time of Ryukyu Kingdom that spanned about 450 years from 1429 until 1879 when the island was annexed by Japan.

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It is also a symbol of Okinawa's struggle and effort to recover from World War II. Shuri Castle burnt down in 1945 during the Battle of Okinawa near the war's end, in which about 200,000 lives were lost on the island, many of them civilians.

The five-centuries-old castle was largely restored in 1992 as a national park and was designated as the UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000.

Okinawa was under the US occupation until 1972, two decades after the rest of Japan regained full independence.

Reuters, AP

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