“We managed to rescue 11 babies, 107 women and 28 staff” after the 3:50 am (0250 GMT) fire in the hospital in Oued Souf, 500 kilometers (300 miles) southeast of Algiers, spokesman Captain Nassim Bernaoui told AFP.
“Unfortunately we regret the deaths of eight babies, some from burns and others from smoke inhalation,” he said, adding that the entire hospital had been evacuated.
Dozens of fire engines were deployed to bring the blaze under control.
The cause of the fire was not immediately clear, Bernaoui said.
According to Algerian public television, preliminary enquiries suggested an electric anti-mosquito device short-circuited and caused the fire.
Images of charred children’s wards were published by local media. Private television channel Ennahar TV aired footage of Oued Souf residents protesting outside the hospital watched by the security forces.
An Ennahar TV presenter read poignant testimony from a father of two of the babies killed: “After seven months of marriage, my wife gave birth to twins in the night, (they) died in the early morning.”
This was the first time “in memory” that infants had died in a hospital fire, several doctors told AFP.
It was the second blaze to hit the maternity hospital in Oued Souf in 16 months. A fire in May last year caused significant damage but no casualties.
Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui ordered an inquiry and sent Health Minister Mohamed Miraoui to the scene, Algerian television reported.
Bedoui offered his condolences to the families.
The health minister ordered the suspension of the district health director, the director of the hospital and the hospital’s security team, Algerian television reported.
A quarter of Algeria’s budget is allocated to the health sector. It has 70,000 public hospital beds and 10,000 private ones, for a population that passed 43 million in January.
For the past four years, Algeria has experienced a baby boom, with nearly a million newborns a year.
The resurgence of the birth rate comes after a sharp fall during the 1990s, when a decade-long civil war killed 200,000 Algerians.