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Middle East
Israel battles deadly forest fire
Assistance arrives from other countries as firefighters struggle to put out blaze that has killed at least 41 people.
Last Modified: 03 Dec 2010 18:10 GMT
The fire in the Carmel Mountains has forced the evacuation of over 13,000 people [AFP]

Israel is battling to put out a blaze that is raging out of control in the Carmel Mountains near the northern town of Haifa, that has killed at least 41 people and injured many others, rescue officials said.

It is the worst fire in the country's history, and officials said on Friday that they are receiving assistance from other countries to battle the blaze.

Local media reported that 36 of the killed were prison guards from Damon jail, a nearby prison, who were caught on their way to rescue inmates from the jail in the fire zone.

After raging for over 24 hours, police and firefighters said the blaze is still not under control and was spreading after destroying over 4,000 hectares of land and forcing the evacuation of more than 13,000 people.

Al Jazeera's Tony Birtley, reporting from Haifa, said that the blaze is spreading in a southeasterly direction, but it was unclear whether the blaze may change direction.

"It's been fanned by strong winds blowing in every direction, so you can't really assess where the real danger is," he said.

Icebreaker

Turkey was amongst the first countries to offer assistance to Israel, laying aside recent diplomatic strains to dispatch two firefighting aircrafts to Israel to help contain the deadly wildfires.

The Israeli and Turkish prime ministers held an ice-breaking telephone conversation on Friday, with Tel Aviv thanking Ankara for sending fire-fighting aircraft to help quell the wildfire.

The chat was the first between Benjamin Netanyahu and Tayyip Erdogan since the Israeli prime minister took office in March 2009.

"I told Erdogan that we appreciate the major efforts during this time and I am sure that this will be a gateway to improving relations between the two countries", Netanyahu said.

In Ankara, a statement said Erdogan had expressed condolences for the 41 Israelis killed in the blaze on Thursday.

"In the face of this disaster it was a humanitarian and Islamic duty for us to help," said Erdogan, adding Turkey would be "ready to make any form of help for the injured".

Greek and Turkish fire-fighting planes flew side by side in Israel on Friday as they dumped water on the flames engulfing woodland near the Israeli port city of Haifa.

However, Erdogan told reporters after his conversation with Netanyahu that Turkey would not fully restore relations before Israel met its demands to apologise and compensate flotilla raid victims, according to Turkey's Anatolian news agency.

"Our demands are clear and these subjects should not be mixed up," Erdogan was quoted as saying.

"We have already said that as long as these demands have not been met, our relations cannot be as they were before."

International help

Meanwhile, firefighting aircraft from four other countries also flew into Israel on Friday to help battle the fire, and more than a dozen countries pledged immediate assistance in response to an urgent personal appeal by Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister.

Five out of seven planes expected to arrive had landed at the Ramat David air base and were preparing to take off to assess the size of the fire and start efforts to distinguish it.

"First we have to take off to go there and see the size of the fire," Captain Nickolas of the Greek air force, told Reuters news agency.

"The operation works like we scooping water from the sea and dropping it into the fire."

Israel, which has a formidable air force, has no firefighting aircraft of its own.

"Israel has never prepared itself in any form for such a need," Netanyahu said. "It was never taken into account.

"We have to stop the fire. It can only be done with the aircraft, we don't have any other means ... We need to bring in more planes."

A plane and a helicopter from Cyprus and two British helicopters have been sent to help fight the enormous blaze from above, while a group of Jordanian firefighters tackled the flames on the ground.

Bulgaria, Russia Egypt, Azerbaijan, Spain, Croatia and France had also offered contributions, with Israel waking up to the fact that it had few effective means of its own to tackle the inferno.

"I think this symbolises an unprecedented response to our request for international help," Netanyahu said after chairing an emergency cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv.

Bulgaria sent 92 firefighters, who were accompanied to the scene by Dimiter Tzantchev, the country's deputy foreign minister.

"We arrived this morning with the governmental aircraft and we have 92 firefighters, experienced people, professionals. These people participated in the operations to fight fires in Russia last summer," he said.

"We are fighting the fire, preventing the expansion of the fire to the houses. One of the teams is staying near a gas station, trying to prevent the expansion of the fire."

'Preventing expansion'

Israel has only 1,500 firefighters, a number widely accepted as inadequate for a country of 7.6 million people.

Major General Nachustan, who is heading co-ordinating international rescue efforts, said he hoped the planes "will be a significant contribution to the fight against the fire".

"These are airplanes that have the capacity which we don't have in this country and we hope to put them into operation very soon."

It was not immediately clear what started the huge fire, but police said on Friday that arson was suspected in two smaller fires that were burning nearby.

Israel has experienced unseasonably hot weather for months and it was the driest November in 60 years.

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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