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Israel inferno closes in on Druze village

Dec. 4, 2010 10:15 P.M. (Updated: Dec. 6, 2010 9:52 A.M.)
by Majeda El Batsh

ISFIYA (AFP) - Residents watched from rooftops on Saturday as a raging fire that has devoured swathes of land in northern Israel closed in on Isfiya, with flames already reported to be licking at the Druze village's outskirts.

"Please leave the area! It is for your own safety," police and officials barked at villagers through loudspeakers, urging them to keep away from the blaze that has already killed 41 people.

"The Turkish and Greek planes are going to spray chemicals on the fire," they warned onlookers, with the fire so close that smoke stung the eyes and made breathing difficult.

"We cannot put the fire out while you are here," the officials stressed.

Israeli and foreign firefighters backed by international water-bombing aircraft battled the blaze for the third straight day on Saturday, struggling to conquer the fire raging through a pine forest and nature reserve just outside the port of Haifa, Israel's third-largest city.

Police sources said two youths from Isfiya had been arrested on suspicion of having started the fire "through negligence" by leaving behind burning embers after a family picnic.

"The fire is about 150 meters away and we are preparing an emergency place in case something happens," said Isfiya council member Faraj Zaher.

"People are very afraid, very frightened, especially the children," he said, adding that flames had already reached one house on the western outskirts of the village of 11,000 people.

More than 17,000 people in the Carmel area hit by the fire have been evacuated so far.

Through the smoky haze, the flames could be seen approaching the village from two directions -- on the hillsides above and also from below -- and getting slowly closer, an AFP correspondent said.

At least four Druze are among the dead, but none from Isfiya, according to Yacoub Kara, a resident. "It's a disaster," he said.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the 41 dead were 38 prison guards whose coach was trapped by the fire, two police officers and one 16-year-old boy volunteer with the fire service.

Another four people are listed as still missing.

Many Isfaya villagers crowded balconies or rooftops, watching firefighters battle the blaze as others stayed indoors to watch the running coverage on television.

Some villagers expressed their anger at the slow response by firefighters.

"The firemen are responsible -- they knew at 11 a.m. (on Thursday) that there was a fire but they didn't respond for another two hours. Now they are looking for someone to blame," said Haadi Zaher.

Restaurant owner Nabih Mehrez, 50, said he mourned the burning of the Carmel forest that was a part of villagers' lives.

"The situation is really sad. This forest is our identity, our home. We were born here and have grown up together with these trees, we know each one of them," he said.

"The danger is close to us but we don't want to lose this forest."
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