Police suspect terrorists started deadly Israeli wildfire

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Pastor Dale Morgan

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Dec 3, 2010, 3:43:26 PM12/3/10
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Perilous Times

Police suspect terrorists started deadly Israeli wildfire


From Kevin Flower, CNN
December 3, 2010 1:45 p.m. EST

STORY HIGHLIGHTS

    * NEW: 40 people burned alive when their bus is engulfed in flames, newspaper reports
    * "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 found.

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 international scale."

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 to police.

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 officials said.

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.
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