Police suspect terrorists started deadly Israeli wildfire
From Kevin Flower, CNN
December 3, 2010 1:45 p.m. EST
* NEW: 40 people burned alive when their bus is engulfed in flames,
* "Suspicious articles" raise speculation that fire was started by
terrorist arsonists, police say
* At least 41 people have been killed
* More than 7,412 acres have burned
Haifa, Israel (CNN) -- While plumes of smoke continued to blanket
Israel's green, Mediterranean north, police said Friday that they
suspect terrorists caused the deadly wildfire that has killed more than
40 people and injured 17 others in at least 48 hours.
Dudi Cohen, an Israeli police commissioner, said Friday that the fire
started from a single location. A special police investigative team
together with a fire expert team have been working nonstop since
Thursday to determine the cause.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said "suspicious objects" found
Thursday raised speculation that the fire could have been started by
terrorist/arsonists. Rosenfeld did not describe the objects that were
In the meantime, officials, eyewitnesses and local media reports say
the wildfire, which has now spread to more than 7,400 acres and
continues to burn, is the worst in the nation's history, with Israeli
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling it "a fire on an
Most of the 41 victims of the fire were cadets in Israel's prison
service, who arrived Thursday to help evacuate 500 inmates from the
Damon prison near Haifa. Forty of them were apparently burned alive
when their bus, traveling along a narrow mountain road, was engulfed in
the fast-moving blaze, the Jerusalem Post reported.
In an interview with the newspaper, a firefighter spokesman said the
fire swallowed the bus in less than three minutes.
"The bus had no chance. They tried to escape but were burned alive,"
the spokesman said. "It was a horrific scene."
Eight funerals were held Friday and several bodies were still being
identified, the Jerusalem Post reported.
Israeli firefighter spokesman Yoram Levy said crews are struggling to
fight the fire amid high, shifting winds at 20 kph, making the inferno
harder to control as flames neared a neighborhood in Haifa, according
Haifa, a port city on the northern coast of Israel, is a major tourist
destination. Built on the slopes of Mount Carmel about 50 miles north
of Tel Aviv, Haifa's metropolitan area is also host to several
historical sites dating to Biblical times.
More than 15,000 people have been evacuated from villages and towns in
the area as authorities scrambled firefighting equipment, emergency
In addition to the loss of lives, the fire has threatened a sensitive
ecological area near the Hai Bar nature reserve.
Also known as Mount Carmel's "Little Switzerland," the reserve is home
to a wildlife preservation project that aims to bring back native
species mentioned in the Old Testament.
The fire, which began Thursday morning on Mount Carmel and spread
through Haifa and nearby areas, has triggered an outcry in a nation
known for its military might, but has fallen short -- according to
critics -- in handling a national calamity.
On Friday, Netanyahu acknowledged during a Security Cabinet briefing
that Israel is unable to cope with a wildfire of this magnitude and
thanked more than 13 nations for sending emergency crews and equipment
to help quell the blaze in areas surrounding the Carmel Forest.
During a visit to fire victims in a hospital in Haifa, where smoke
blanketed most of the city, Netanyahu said Russian planes were the
latest addition to the international force aiding Israel.
Russia's ITAR-Tass news agency reported that an II-76 plane capable of
holding 42 tons of water, an amphibious BE-200 and an Mi-26 transport
helicopter also used for fighting fires are scheduled to fly to Israel.
"On the way here, we flew over Carmel, where we heard and saw the Greek
aircraft fighting the fire," Netanyahu said.
"They entered the smoke and dropped water. ... I very much appreciate
the mobilization of many countries," he said.
In addition to the Russian and Greek assistance, Israeli fire crews are
also getting help from Cyprus, England and the United States, among
others. Turkey was also sending firefighting planes despite recent
diplomatic tensions between the two countries.
Relations between Turkey and Israel have been tense since last spring,
when Israeli commandos boarded a Turkish ship carrying humanitarian aid
for Gaza, killing nine people.
CNN's Michal Zippori contributed to this report.