A fire raced through a crowded, run-down Paris apartment building housing African immigrants and killed 17 people, mostly children trapped while they slept. The tragedy Friday triggered angry calls for action on behalf of France's needy.

The fire started under the ground-floor stairwell at about midnight and raged for three hours in the six-story building in southeast Paris, prosecutor Jean-Claude Marin said. An open window at the top of the building "created a wind tunnel that turned the stairwell into a veritable chimney," he said.

Of the 17 killed, 14 were children, Marin said. Another 23 people were injured, two seriously. Some residents jumped from windows to escape the flames, while others were overcome by smoke as they slept. More than 200 firefighters fought the blaze.

It was the second deadly blaze since spring to strike poor immigrants in the French capital. A fire in April at a budget hotel killed 24 people, also mostly from Africa and including many children. It was apparently ignited by a candle that had been knocked over.

"More than ever, housing must be a national priority," the mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, said after Friday's fire.

The district mayor, Serge Blisko, said the building was overcrowded. Residents said three-room apartments often housed 12 people. About 30 adults and 100 children lived in the building.

Angry African immigrants surrounded Housing Minister Jean-Louis Borloo at the site of the fire, demanding help.

Oumar Cisse, 71, who like many of the residents is from Mali, was awakened by the cries of children and adults and rushed to his second-floor window. People "jumped out the windows," he said. "They didn't care about dying."

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy pointed to overcrowding as a reason for the high death toll and ordered an inventory of dangerous and overcrowded buildings.

Marin said the cause of the fire was not yet known and that a criminal investigation had begun.

Former Health Minister Bernard Kouchner, co-founder of the aid group Doctors Without Borders, said France had a "collective" responsibility for such disasters and called for a more "heartfelt" approach toward poor immigrants.

SOS Racism, an organization that combats discrimination, called for urgent measures "to house foreign families on our soil with dignity and decency."

In 1991, homeless immigrants and others camped out for four months under tents near the site of Friday's fire. Many of that building's residents were among the protesters 14 years ago.

The building was requisitioned by the state in 1991 to help house immigrants in a city with soaring rents. It was managed by France-Euro Habitat, an association that works with Emmaus, a worldwide humanitarian organization.

Cisse, who had lived in the building for nearly 15 years and served as a go-between with the management association, said the building was infested with rats and mice. Others reported leaks and dark hallways.

Martin Hirsch, an official of Emmaus France, disputed charges that the building was overcrowded. It wasn't like places "where they stuff people in rooms to make money," he said.

More than 200 firefighters battled the blaze, which burned for three hours. A friend of residents cries as she watches the rescue effort. Many of the residents were from Mali.