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Australian Police Hunt Arsonists, Expect Wildfire Deaths to Reach 300


Police in Australia have mounted a massive hunt for arsonists they suspect are behind the wildfires that may have killed as many as 300 people and destroyed up to 1,000 homes.

On Tuesday, the official death toll stood at 181, but police have yet to enter some areas where they expect to find large numbers of additional fatalities.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told Parliament Tuesday that the communities wiped out by the wildfires will be rebuilt "brick by brick." He committed government funds to aid victims of the fire in the southeastern state of Victoria and the floods in the northeastern state of Queensland.

Police Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon has been appointed to head the joint-state-federal effort to rebuild fire-ravaged communities in the state of Victoria.

Meanwhile, the government and private organizations have launched fund raising efforts to aid the victims.

The Australian government has received an outpouring of messages of sympathy from world leaders. U.S. President Barack Obama telephoned Mr. Rudd late Monday to offer condolences and assistance.

Australian firefighters were still battling about a dozen wildfires in Victoria on Tuesday. About 400 fires burned around Victoria's largest city of Melbourne, devastating about 3,000 square kilometers of land. Wildfires had also spread to the neighboring states of New South Wales and South Australia.

Police have designated some of the incinerated towns as crime scenes and suspect some of the fires were deliberately set.

A 31-year-old man and a 15-year-old boy have been charged with starting fires in the state of New South Wales. No deaths have been reported from those fires.

Southeastern Australia is one of the world's most fire-prone regions. Hot summer conditions have been worsened by a long-standing drought.


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