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40 dead in northern Israel fire

Dec. 2, 2010 3:18 P.M. (Updated: Dec. 3, 2010 10:01 A.M.)
JERUSALEM (Ma'an) -- About 40 people have been killed in a massive forest fire raging out of control near the northern city of Haifa, Israel's ambulance service Magen David Adom said on Thursday.

"There are about 45 casualties, of whom about 40 are dead," the ambulance service said in a statement, according to AFP.

According to the Israeli news site Ynet, Magen David Adom said a bus leaving Damon Prison caught fire. The bus carried some 50 passengers.

Damon Prison holds Palestinian women prisoners from the West Bank and Gaza, but Palestinian Authority Minister of Prisoners Affairs Issa Qaraqe said no detainees were hurt.

"Sixteen females prisoners were safely transferred, no one was hurt," he told Ma'an. He said the overturned bus carried 40 Israeli police officers and and other personnel who were sent to help transfer the prisoners.

He said the Palestinian detainees were transferred safely to Israel's Hasharon prison.

By nightfall, the fire had incinerated hundreds of hectares (acres) of land and was still raging out of control.

The fire service issued an urgent call for all of Israel's 1,500 firefighters to report to the area, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appealed for international help to control the blaze which broke out shortly before midday.

"Netanyahu spoke in the last few minutes with the heads of Greece, Cyprus, Italy and Russia with the aim of recruiting additional air fire fighters from these countries to help put out the fire in the Carmel," a statement from his office said.

"We are harnessing all the state's energies in order to deal with this disaster, to save the injured, stop the fire," Netanyahu said in a public address shortly before leaving for the scene of the tragedy. "This is a disaster on a scale we have not experienced before."

Dramatic footage from the scene showed flames rushing across the forest floor, engulfing trees and sending thick plumes of smoke into the air.

Fireman Dudu Vanunu told Israel's Channel Two television he saw flames consume a bus believed to be trying to evacuate people ahead of the enormous fire.

"Anyone who's ever seen a firestorm will know. They could not survive it, they had no protection, they just fell to the road and burned alive," he said.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told AFP that about 20 families from the Arab village of Ussafiya had been evacuated from their homes as flames swept through the pine forest covering the Carmel hill ridge, one of Israel's most popular beauty spots.

Yoram Levy, a spokesman for the Israeli Fire and Rescue Commission, said emergency workers had evacuated the nearby Beit Oren Kibbutz and a luxury hotel in the path of the fire.

"It's one of the biggest fires we've ever had. In 1998 we had one like this, but not since then," he told AFP.

AFP contributed to this report
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