Israel forest fire 'under control'

Firefighters have overpowered the deadly blaze which tore through a forest in northern Israel after a four-day battle aided by aircraft from around the world.

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Firefighters have overpowered the deadly blaze which tore through a forest in northern Israel after a four-day battle aided by aircraft from around the world, officials have said.

"The fire is under control. There are no longer any major seats of the blaze. The task now is to make sure it doesn't break out again," fire chief Shimon Romah said.

And public security minister Yitzhak Aaronovitch, quoted by his spokesman, said earlier: "I hope we will have finished in the coming hours" as aircraft from several countries worked to damp down the zone.

The tide appeared to have turned as a flotilla of international firefighting planes was reinforced today by a Boeing 747 supertanker, the world's largest water-bombing aircraft, rented from the United States.

"I haven't seen any flame for the last hour. It is better than I have seen in the last three days. We definitively have the back of it (the fire) broken," British helicopter pilot Euan Johnson said at Haifa military base.

By late morning, the Boeing supertanker was pouring 76,000 litres of water and flame retardant on the fire on each pass.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said no more firefighting planes from abroad were needed, acting on the advice of professional firefighters, and thanked the many nations which contributed.

Assistance arrived quickly, with at least 16 nations offering aircraft, personnel or materiel.

The fire ravaged at least 5,000 hectares of land and five million trees in pine-covered hills known locally as "little Switzerland." With the balance swinging, meteorologists said rain was expected within 24 hours.

In an act of solidarity, ministers held their weekly cabinet meeting in the Haifa suburb of Tirat HaCarmel, where some residents were evacuated from the path of the flames.

They opened the session with a minute's silence for victims of the fire, as Mr Netanyahu pledged compensation for the injured and homes lost.

The fire, centred on the Carmel hill range, just south and east of Haifa, claimed 41 lives and forced more than 17,000 people to flee their homes. It was the largest inferno in Israel's 62-year history.

An Israel in mourning during its religious holiday of Hanukkah buried 27 of the victims yesterday, with full military honours.

"They died trying to save lives. They were the best in our unit," said prisons authority officer Avi Segev at one burial at a military cemetery at Dimona in southern Israel. It was his fifth funeral of the day.

Most of those killed by the fire were prison guards on board a bus who had been trying to evacuate inmates from a facility in the forest, officials had said.

They died "trying to save terrorists," a reference to Palestinian prisoners at the jail in the forest, a policeman said softly at the burial.

Police have arrested two youths from the Druze Israeli village of Isfiya on suspicion of starting the blaze "through negligence" by leaving behind burning embers after a family picnic.

Touring Isfiya on Sunday, Netanyahu said there was no sign of "criminal intent," and protested against rumours that Israel's Arab community was behind the blaze.

"There is no collective blame," he said.

A score of other fires around Israel has been reported since Thursday, "the majority apparently intentional," said a police spokesman, adding that four arrests were made.

Media reports said that three Israeli Arabs and a Palestinian had been arrested.

More than 30 firefighting aircraft flew sorties over the forest and scrub early yesterday, Israeli media reported.

As Israel does not have firefighting planes of its own, aircraft were brought in from several countries, including Greece, Britain, Cyprus, Turkey, Russia and France.

Mr Netanyahu said that next week he would present a plan for Israel to purchase its own firefighting planes.

France's ambassador to Israel, Christophe Bigot, said Paris had sent five of its 10 aerial firefighting units. In another sign of solidarity, 20 Palestinian firefighters joined the multi-national effort on Sunday.

Meanwhile, senior leader Ismail Haniyeh of the Palestinian Hamas movement told reporters the fire was "a blow from God."

And Rabbi Ovadia Yossef, a coalition partner with 13 MPs in the 120-strong parliament and spiritual leader of Israel's powerful ultra-Orthodox Shas party, spoke in a commentary of "divine providence," saying such fires break out "only where the Sabbath is not kept sacred."