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New arson attacks suspected as Aus fires rage

Australian police investigated fresh arson attacks and looting as angry survivors pressed for access to towns devastated by wildfires that continue to burn across vast areas.

world Updated: Feb 11, 2009 13:14 IST

Australian police investigated fresh arson attacks and looting on Wednesday as angry survivors pressed for access to towns devastated by wildfires that continue to burn across vast areas.

Victoria state Premier John Brumby said there was "little doubt" that several fires had been deliberately lit overnight in the state where at least 181 people, and possibly more than 200, died in blazes on the weekend.

"I think words escape us all when it comes to describing that deliberate arson," he said.

State police commissioner Christine Nixon said investigators were closing in on an arsonist blamed for lighting a fire in the Gippsland region, in the state's east.

As police continue the largest arson investigation in Australia's history, firefighters raised concerns about looters picking through the remains of abandoned properties in a disaster zone about the size of Luxembourg.

"We have had some reports of looting and certainly some (firefighting) volunteers and citizens who have told us that they have seen strange people in their neighbourhoods," Nixon said.

Thousands of firefighters are battling to save communities still threatened by 23 wildfires raging across farms and tinder-dry bushland in the southeast of the country.

Country Fire Authority (CFA) Deputy Chief Fire Officer Steve Warrington said the Thompson Reservoir in the Upper Yarra Valley, a wine-growing region and major catchment for Melbourne city's water supply, could come under threat.

Fires near the rural towns of Bunyip and Kinglake could merge and threaten more towns if they are fanned by northerly winds forecast for Saturday.

"There is a huge effort going on minimising the impact of that fire as we speak," Warrington told the Australian Associated Press, adding that a major gas plant was also in potential danger.

Stunned residents started being allowed through crime-scene lines to see for themselves what remained of Kinglake town, but there was anger from residents of other communities that remained off limits.

Premier Brumby said he understood residents' desire to return to their towns but warned that the horrific scenes in places like Marysville were simply too gruesome for survivors to see.

"You can imagine if people return to those areas and they return to a house ... and there are still deceased persons there, the trauma of this and the impact would be quite devastating," he told Sky News.

There was also fury at "bureaucratic crap" from officials demanding photo identification and bank statements from victims seeking emergency aid, prompting an apology from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Gary Hughes, a journalist at The Australian newspaper who lost his home and narrowly escaped the fires, wrote an open letter to Rudd lambasting federal officials over the demands.

"What's that meant to be, Kevin, some cruel joke?" he wrote.

A police spokesman meanwhile said there was no suspicion the arsonists were Islamic terrorists, after reports last year that a group of extremists had urged Muslims to light bushfires as a weapon in "holy war."

"None at all, absolutely nothing, zero," Superintendent Ross McNeill told AFP.

In the town of Marysville, flattened by the flames at the weekend, up to 100 of its 500 or so residents are now believed to have been killed, officials said -- a toll far higher than first reports suggested.

Rudd said Wednesday the fires had left 500 people injured, more than 1,000 homes destroyed and 450,000 hectares (1.1 million acres) burnt. More than 5,000 people have been left homeless.

Offers of help have poured in from around the world with leaders including US President Barack Obama telephoning Rudd to offer condolences and support.

Question time in the House of Representatives was suspended for the rest of the week in recognition of the disaster.

The only other time parliament has sat for a week without question time was during World War II, said lawmaker Joe Hockey.

First Published: Feb 11, 2009 13:11 IST