Arson arrests after Australia’s deadly forest fires (Lead)

February 12th, 2009 - 3:04 pm ICT by IANS  

Sydney, Feb 12 (DPA) Australian police arrested two arson suspects Thursday in connection with the weekend’s deadly forest fires north of Melbourne.
At least 1,200 houses were razed, 450,000 hectares blackened and 5,000 rendered homeless in blazes that started in the national parks that cover one third of the state of Victoria.

The official death toll stands at 181 but officials say the final body count will be well over 200.

The arrest followed reports from the public of suspicious behaviour. Charges are yet to be laid.

Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon said it was very likely the fire that ravaged the town of Marysville was deliberately lit.

Marysville, which had a population of 500, has only a dozen buildings left standing and there are fears that up to one in five of its residents were killed.

“We’re very focused on this issue,” Nixon said. “We’re asking again for the community to come forward - anybody who is suspicious, anybody who has concerns.”

Behind the Do-Not-Cross tape in Marysville, forensic teams were going through wrecked buildings and burned-out cars to locate and then identify bodies - something that police spokesman Steve Fontana said might not always be possible.

“It’s very difficult to identify in some cases whether it’s more than one body in a spot,” he said. “So it’s really difficult to say ‘this is the number of people we’ve had from one area’.”

Twelve major fires were still burning but fire chiefs said lower temperatures and rain had reduced the threat to homes.

Nixon confirmed that more fires had been lit since Saturday’s inferno.

“You and I would just be staggered by that, but that’s what we’re certainly seeing. We’ve been investigating those as well,” she said.

A strike team of 125 detectives has been deployed and, before the end of the week, police expect to release photofit pictures of suspected arsonists.

“Obviously we don’t put facefits out unless we’re confident that in fact it will lead to the elimination or implication of somebody that may have been involved in these fires,” strike team leader Dannye Moloney said.

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